It’s beginning to look a lot like 2000. A prominent conservative bolts the GOP and wins the presidential nomination of an established third party. Early on, the poll numbers are encouraging and the media coverage respectful. Soon, however, his insurgent campaign is lost in the shuffle of a competitive two-party race. There is even competition for the dissident Right’s support, as the Constitution Party runs its own presidential candidate. Infighting, missteps, and misfortunes further erode any possibility of a major breakthrough. Even Russ Verney makes an appearance.
This election cycle was an even bigger missed opportunity than 2000. The issues Pat Buchanan ran on—foreign policy, trade, and immigration—are all more salient now than they were eight years ago. Not only are antiwar conservatives up for grabs, but the Republican nominee, John McCain, is despised or distrusted by millions of ordinary taxpaying, churchgoing, Limbaugh-listening conservatives without the paleo prefix. Moreover, Ron Paul momentarily united Buchananites and libertarians during the Republican primaries, raising millions of dollars and inspiring thousands of passionate followers.
The kind of third-party campaign that was quixotic during the Bush-Gore battle of the hanging chads would seem plausible in the fight against McBama. If there were ever a chance to free disaffected conservatives from the chains that bind them to the GOP, this would be the year.
Yet unless something significant is brewing beneath the surface of the polls, that seems increasingly unlikely to happen. There is little evidence that Chuck Baldwin will fare much better than pre-Ron Paul Constitution Party candidates and good reason to believe that Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr will do much worse than the 6 percent nationally that seemed possible this summer.
In recent years, there has been little room for serious third-party challenges on the right. The two most successful—George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992—were difficult to classify ideologically and did not appeal exclusively to conservatives. Wallace siphoned votes from both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Perot, though most of his supporters were Bush ‘88 voters, actually got his lowest percentages among self-described conservative Republicans. John Schmitz, a sitting member of Congress and John Birch Society leader, took 1.4 percent of the vote in 1972, Buchanan just 0.4 percent twenty-eight years later. The Constitution/U.S. Taxpayers’ Party has never broken 190,000 votes in four presidential elections, other smaller outfits have attracted Prohibition Party levels of support.
For paleoconservatives, this is difficult to understand. The Republican Party has manifestly failed to shrink the federal government, control immigration, reverse Roe v. Wade, curtail affirmative action, and roll back decades of cultural leftism, goals that even the mainstream movement claims to endorse. Democrats have given liberals the New Deal and the Great Society, and would deliver national health insurance if given the chance. Domestically, Republicans have given conservatives the Reagan tax cuts (Bush’s will expire in 2011), deregulation, and a welfare reform bill that had to be signed into law by a Democratic president. Yet the most successful recent third-party candidates have appealed to Volvo-driving white liberals (John Anderson in 1980 and Ralph Nader in 2000), angry moderates (Perot in 1992 and 1996), and segregationist dead-enders (Strom Thurmond in 1948 and Wallace in 1968). It is difficult to identify a significant third-party candidate who was as far to the right as Henry Wallace was to the left, although such candidacies have been tried.
Conservatives attempted to persuade both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to run as third-party candidates. They spurned right-wing entreaties, eventually winning the GOP presidential nomination and, in Reagan’s case, the presidency. The Constitution Party was founded in part as a vehicle for a Buchanan third-party bid. The Libertarians have nominated both Barr and Paul, in the latter case not doing much better than when they have run political nobodies. Paul has managed to win ten congressional elections—and is on track to prevail in an eleventh this November—as a Republican, while getting Michael Badnarik-like vote totals as a third-party candidate.
It may be difficult to remember now, but Bob Barr once seemed capable of succeeding where others failed. True, he always had his problems. He did not have the charisma of Buchanan, the dedicated personal following of Paul, or the wealth of Perot. A solid but fairly conventional conservative as a House Republican, Barr was a recent convert on a whole host of issues he would need to highlight in a successful campaign—the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, Medicare prescription-drug coverage, and, to a much lesser extent, the War on Drugs. Although he joined the Libertarian Party in 2006, endorsed its 2004 nominee over George W. Bush, and focused on civil liberties since leaving Congress, he was vulnerable to charges that he was a flip-flopper—the Libertarians’ Mitt Romney.
But Barr was famous enough to get the headlines he needed and sufficiently respected to be taken at least somewhat seriously. Paul had already proven that a candidate with the right message could raise large amounts of money without being charismatic or superrich. And Barr’s mixture of old mainstream conservatism and new libertarianism positioned him well to appeal to conservatives who thought McCain dissented from the party line too much (on tax cuts, regulations, guns, and immigration) and those who complained the Maverick did so too rarely (on Iraq, Iran, warrantless wiretapping, and the bulk of the Bush administration’s initiatives).
A coalition of Ron Paul Republicans and Rush Limbaugh Republicans would be hard to assemble and even more difficult to hold together. The Paulites would be deflated if Barr were insufficiently antiwar, whereas anti-McCain Republican regulars would be alienated by too much dovishness. But, as Buchanan’s Republican campaigns showed, such a coalition isn’t completely impossible. Early on, Barr’s candidacy was cheered by both libertarian hawk Eric Dondero and the staunchly antiwar Lew Rockwell.
Even if Barr merely consolidated the libertarian and right-wing third-party vote while also capturing some of Ron Paul’s 1.2 million votes, he would likely break Ed Clark’s record as the Libertarian Party’s top presidential vote-getter. If he won the votes of disgruntled mainstream Republicans, he could affect the outcome in several states and do better than Nader in 2000. Under this scenario, Barr would not only give newly organized Ron Paul revolutionaries something productive to do while putting Republicans on notice that they couldn’t take their conservative base for granted. He would do well enough to potentially nudge the GOP in a more sensible direction—or threaten its very existence.
At one point, Barr himself seemed to realize what was at stake. He spoke of building the Libertarian Party into an effective, mainstream political organization that could win elections. But he also talked about how Perot’s 19 percent of the vote influenced the 1994 Contract with America and persuaded Republicans, who had come to believe that deficits didn’t matter, to embrace a balanced budget in the 1990s. Once again, the GOP could lead, follow, or get out of the way.
While the Constitution Party honorably eschewed (relative) celebrity and chose the consistently antiwar Chuck Baldwin over the neoconservative Alan Keyes, Barr offered disaffected conservatives something Baldwin could not: a chance to have some noticeable impact on the election without voting for McCain. He also stood a better chance than Baldwin of continuing to mainstream ideas Paul brought into the 2008 campaign rather than have them return to the fringes of American politics.
Polls can exaggerate a third-party candidate’s support. Sometimes, people feel more comfortable telling a pollster they back a third candidate rather than admit they are undecided or have no preference. If the third-party candidate’s support is soft, many of those voters will migrate back to their usual major party by Election Day. But the early polling, both nationally and in states like Georgia and North Carolina, gave Barr supporters every reason to believe their hopes were well founded. A John Anderson-sized vote percentage was not out of the question. Some of the more effusive Libertarians even allowed themselves to dream of a Perot ‘92-like showing.
Now Barr will be lucky if he significantly exceeds the 300,000-400,000 votes a Libertarian Party presidential candidate can normally expect to receive. If his vote totals end up looking more like Harry Browne’s than Ed Clark’s, the postmortems will focus on Barr’s rift with the Ron Paul Republicans, beginning with his decision to pull out of a third-party press conference organized by Paul himself. It was never in Barr’s interest to put himself on equal footing with other third-party candidates—for the same reason Perot wanted to debate Bush and Clinton, not Howard Phillips and Lenora Fulani—but his handling of the event was nothing short of disastrous.
“There might be perfectly good reasons not to attend,” argued Eric Garris, “In any event, the decision is the LP’s. But there are no good reasons to say you will be there, to place it on your public schedule, to attend planning meetings, and then to blow it off 30 minutes before the press conference.” Worse, he held a rival event at which he seemed to question Paul’s commitment to individual liberty and continued to bait Paul until the Texan endorsed Baldwin.
On this score, Barr blew it. Yet Paul’s initial dithering was also problematic. Whatever one thinks of left-right coalitions, success in electoral politics requires supporting a specific candidate. It makes no more sense to simultaneously endorse four competing candidates, even if they agree on important issues, than it would for libertarians to be neutral in a race between Paul and Eugene Flynn. You cannot influence an electoral outcome or send a coherent message by splitting 1.2 million votes four ways. Even a straight endorsement of Nader would have been more logical, as anything that strengthens Nader could push Barack Obama in a more antiwar direction.
When Paul finally endorsed the Constitution Party nominee, he did so in a manner that was maximally harmful to Barr and minimally helpful to Baldwin: he waited until after most of the ballot-access fights were over, after Keyes snatched the American Independent Party ballot line in California, after the media became obsessed with McBama, and after the Rally for the Republic. The endorsement said more about the slight by “the Libertarian Party candidate” than it did about Baldwin’s authentic conservatism and virtues as a presidential choice. If Paul had come out for either Barr or Baldwin as early as May rather than in September, his decision would have had a much greater impact.
In February, I agreed with Paul’s decision to remain in the Republican Party, on the grounds that even one Ron Paul Republican in elected office is better than a strong but ultimately unsuccessful third-party campaign for the presidency. The country and the Republican conference needed Paul in Congress rallying opposition to the bailout plan more than anyone would benefit from him protesting his inevitable exclusion from the presidential debates. But the Paulites’ subsequent political activities and the tiny dissident Right’s multiple choices at the ballot box this November do give me second thoughts.
A majority of Paul delegates at the Republican National Convention voted for McCain, not the Good Doctor. Ron Paul Republicans have had successes in primaries—and B.J. Lawson is a particularly promising candidate—but mostly in lopsidedly Democratic areas where they stand little chance of winning in November. The Campaign for Liberty won’t promote antiwar, hard-money Republican primary candidates in exactly the same way as the Club for Growth backs GOP supply-siders. And while the party establishment has tried to exclude Paul supporters as they once sought to freeze out the despised Goldwaterites and Birchers, Paul himself hasn’t done much to build his credibility within the GOP by praising third parties and consorting with Cynthia McKinney.
There is nothing wrong with working within the Republican Party where possible and working outside it where necessary. But both types of work need to be effective. A Ron Paul third-party candidacy would not have been ideal, especially if it meant that Chris Peden would be heading to Congress instead. It probably would have been better than what has actually happened, however. At the very least, the Barr-Baldwin competition would have been eliminated, as Paul would be a candidate both the Libertarian and Constitution parties could have gotten behind.
Both of those parties also have their flaws. The influence of Christian Reconstructionism in the Constitution Party has caused most paleoconservative intellectuals, many of them serious Christians, to hold the party at arm’s length. Its tendency toward factionalism and inability to successfully integrate socially conservative Keyes supporters (many of whom are more interested in abortion than their leader’s neoconservatism) raise questions about its long-term prospects for success as a political party rather than a debating society.
The longer-established Libertarian Party suffers from similar problems and a few new ones of its own. Like the Reform Party in 2000, the LP has proved a deeply flawed vehicle for any kind of conservatism. The LP has pushed Barr to the left on same-sex marriage and immigration, to his detriment in the general election, and basically muted him on abortion. Like Paul twenty years ago, Barr has faced persistent opposition from cultural radicals within the party, some of whom were less than helpful to Barr’s state ballot-access drives. Those radicals will gain further influence in the event of a poor showing by Barr and his running mate, fellow “pragmatist” Wayne Allyn Root.
Third-party conservative efforts are also hobbled by the ease with which most of the right can be brought back into the Republican fold. In 2000, all George W. Bush had to do keep the brigades from defecting with Buchanan was to name a pro-life running mate—Dick Cheney, to add insult to injury—and talk about a “humble foreign policy” with exit strategies and without nation-building. McCain, who entered the 2008 presidential race with even weaker movement conservative credentials, just had to pick Sarah Palin. If Barr’s press conference blunder cost him the Ron Paul Republicans, Palin put most Rush Limbaugh Republicans out of reach. A single desertion by a Buchanan, Barr, or Paul does not a conservative exodus from the GOP make.
With the deck already stacked so heavily against minor parties, there is no margin for error much less problems of this magnitude. Perhaps, as Ron Paul has suggested, the combined vote totals for Barr and Baldwin will give disaffected conservatives reasons for hope. But right now, things are looking pretty grim.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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