How Not to Win the Presidency How Not to Win the Presidency
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How Not to Win the Presidency

by Thomas Golianopoulos

October 26, 2008
Why Vote? Reason 1,280YOU SHOULD VOTE BECAUSE Libertarian Bob Barr will not be the 44th president of the United States. Neither will the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney. But if 2000 taught us anything, it's that third-party candidates can influence the outcomes of elections. Is Barr the new Nader?
Bob Barr actually cares what you write about him. He's especially sensitive to jabs about his wardrobe. Journalists have painted him as everything from "grumpy and humorless" to "stocky and rumpled." Barr has also been called "trim"-he saved a copy of that one. But what really ticked him off was when a reporter placed him in a "three-piece suit." Because he hasn't worn a three-piece suit in 30 years. He tells that anecdote with perfect comic timing and just a hint of sarcasm. It's a great icebreaker, and today it gets a big belly laugh from his audience.It's a quarter past nine on a perfect mid-August morning in Washington, D.C., and Bob Barr, the four-term former Georgia congressman who led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton, is trying to explain to a dozen or so members of the conservative media why he should be elected president on the Libertarian ticket.It's a tall order for a man who once licked whipped cream off a woman's breast at a fundraiser and accidentally discharged a loaded pistol at a campaign event. But he has his backers. The American Spectator and the anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform have sponsored the breakfast. Calling them fiscal conservatives would be an understatement; tax-and-spend politicians are red meat for these guys.Witty posters from the past ("The Soviet Union Needs You: Support a U.S. Nuclear Freeze") and present ("Big Sister Is Watching You," which features an extreme close-up of Hillary Clinton's mug) adorn the walls of the conference room. There's also a poster-more like an idol-of Ronald Reagan. With the specter of the Great Communicator behind him, Barr launches into his core positions: the social-security system is a "Ponzi scheme"; the government is wasteful; taxes are too high; government needs to be more hands off; a non-interventionist foreign policy is the way to go-all accomplished, of course, with a balanced budget.Dressed in a black pinstripe suit and stylish Prada glasses, he's neither stocky nor trim. Certainly not humorless. But still a little grumpy. He criticizes John McCain's stance on the Russia-Georgia conflict ("‘We are all Georgians.' What does that mean? It means absolutely nothing."), the war in Iraq, and debunks the prospect of debating the Green Party candidate for president, as the last Libertarian candidate, Michael Badnarik, did in 2004. "Because we're far ahead of the other third parties in the polls, we believe that I will be the only candidate that has a reasonable shot at gaining access to the national debate," he says. "That is our goal. Our goal is not to engage in or settle for debates that are not national in scope."And why should he? While it's highly unlikely he will stand alongside McCain and Barack Obama at the debates, Barr has a point. The major parties like to scoff at fringe candidates, but if the 2000 election taught us anything it is that they are not without political significance, both in terms of influencing policy, and affecting the outcome of elections. Ralph Nader's Green Party, at its peak in 2000, drew 2.7 percent of the national vote. And though the party has floundered in recent years, now led by former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and her hip-hop-activist VP, they're still polling at about 1 percent. The Libertarians, meanwhile, are drawing numbers that are reminding a lot of people of Florida eight years back. Polling at 3 percent in most national surveys, Barr will likely land on the ballot in 48 states-that's four more than Nader did in 2000.Sure, that theoretical 3 percent is not enough to usher him into the Oval Office, but it is enough to make a serious dent in someone's numbers come November. It's also enough to make the Republican party stand up and pay attention-to Barr, to his policies, and to his supporters-the way the Democrats perhaps should have with Nader in 2000.Republicans have reason to take note. In the Republican primaries, the Libertarian-leaning congressman Ron Paul surprisingly drummed up $35 million in contributions and outlasted Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney, two golden boys of the GOP establishment. Barr and his 3 percent, meanwhile, have been tabbed potential "spoilers," on track to siphon enough votes from McCain in swing states like Nevada to tilt the election to Obama. Naturally, this wasn't lost on the party of Lincoln.On August 18, a Republican Party leader filed court papers to remove Barr from the Pennsylvania ballot, a state with 21 Electoral College votes and where Obama holds a slim lead. There was also a rumor that McCain selected the moose-hunting governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate with the hopes of securing an NRA endorsement that could go to Barr. Even Obama is feeling the heat, continuing his rightward lurch in an effort to appeal to centrists and swing voters.
Convincing people he should be president is a tall order for a man who once licked whipped cream off a woman's breast at a fundraiser.
Ralph Nader was the last presidential candidate that voters embraced as a viable alternative to the majors, but the party with which he rose to prominence isn't doing so well these days. On October 14, 2000, when Nader spoke before 15,000 of his acolytes at Madison Square Garden, Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray, and Michael Moore were there to cheer him on; Eddie Vedder even performed. When Rosa Clemente, the Green Party's vice presidential nominee, speaks before her followers tonight, they will number a few dozen at a hipster dive bar in Brooklyn, New York.Several factors have taken the wind out of the Green party's sail-but no single factor is greater than that many on the left haven't yet forgiven Nader, or his party, for "costing" the Democrats the election."There are people who we meet on the street that say, ‘It's your fault we are in Iraq,'" says Kat Swift, a Texas Green who was a candidate for the party's 2008 presidential nomination. "The people who aren't paying attention to the facts still think the Green Party is the problem. But if you talk to people who understand the media and political spin, they understand that the people in power want to keep their power so they are going to do what they can to maintain that. Whether they join the party or not is a different issue."
Most of them do not. Since 2000, party support has shrunk considerably and consistently. That year, Nader collected 2.9 million votes; in 2004, the Green Party candidate David Cobb received only a little more than 100,000. Obama's victory over Clinton in the Democratic primary didn't help them either. He's the Democrats' most progressive candidate since George McGovern in 1972. Put simply, the far left don't need the Greens the way they did when Kerry ran; Obama's got them covered. And today, the party is polling behind even Ralph Nader, who is running again, but this time as an independent.But that hasn't stopped Cynthia McKinney, a six-term congresswoman from Georgia, known for her incendiary comments and for her ballsy take on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Two years before Fahrenheit 9/11, McKinney spoke of Bush Sr.'s connection to the Carlyle Group, a private-equity investment firm that once had connections to the bin Laden family.) She's also known for introducing articles of impeachment against Bush Jr., Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, and, in March, 2006, she was involved in a physical altercation with a Capitol police officer. That year, she lost her bid for re-election. The following year, she left the Democratic party."The Democratic party has definitely changed," she says. "It's become the money party and the war party. The money comes from the same special interests that control the system and inhibit alternative voices." McKinney is running on a platform of an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, economic and environmental sustainability, and universal single-payer health care.A major challenge to the party, too, is the ghost of Ralph Nader. At the Green Party's convention this summer, the famed consumer advocate received the second highest number of delegates, despite his announcement back in February that he would decline to seek the Green Party nomination. It made the party look like the heartbroken ex who can't come to terms when the relationship has runs its course."When people think about the Green Party, they think Ralph Nader," says Swift. "You kind of have to know that he was just the nominee, he's not the party. Most people who supported Nader supported Nader-they weren't Green Party people."Similarly, Barr thinks the Libertarians' numbers are mushrooming because of, well, because of Bob Barr. "Having at the top of the Libertarian ticket a former member of Congress with a relatively high name ID and a great deal of credibility from the work since serving in the Congress on substantive issues makes a tremendous difference," he says. "That adds a lot more credibility and validity to our national ticket than we've had in the past." At the same time, he concedes that he represents an alternative to a party that has greatly disappointed some of the Republican core-something the Greens can't dream of tapping into. "The deep dissatisfaction with the status quo is much more pronounced this cycle than any previous year, including 2004," he tells me after breakfast.So while the far left may not need the Greens, the fiscal conservatives do need the Libertarians more than ever. The Patriot Act, a $9 trillion national debt, and an aggressive interventionist foreign policy have outraged Libertarians and even some Republicans. "[People] are voting for Barr to send a message," says David F. Nolan, who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971. "The people that are voting for Bob Barr are Libertarian Party loyalists, which will be about 400,000 or 500,000. Then there are a lot of people who vote Republican because they are under the delusion that the Republican Party is the party of limited government, as it was in the days of Barry Goldwater and, to some extent, Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush is the antithesis of a limited-government/Constitution guy.""The Libertarian Party of 2008 is not your grandfather's Libertarian Party," Barr says, attempting to debunk the public image of Libertarians as either Ruby Ridge gun nuts or eccentric stoners.Grover Norquist agrees. He remembers scouting meetings in the early 1980s, attempting to recruit the people wearing suits and ties. "Back then, there were serious guys who were more aggressive, radical Republicans who called themselves Libertarians. Then you had the anarchist types," he says. "The difference is some people were having fun expressing themselves and some people wanted to change the world." For third parties "there are two impulses: one is to shock people. … Then, there is, let me reason with you. Bob Barr is not a shock-and-awe Libertarian."
"We're in a two-party system and we're supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world? That makes no sense." - Rosa Clemente
But not all Libertarians are behind Barr. To some within his party, he isn't shock and awe enough. While in Congress, he wrote the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, was an early supporter of the Patriot Act, and was one of the most stringent advocates of the Drug War-all positions antithetical to Libertarian ideals. He also didn't join the party until 2006. "The laws that he passed resulted in my family being broken up and me almost dying in [police] custody," says Steve Kubby, a medical marijuana activist and cancer patient who has served jail time and once fled to Canada. He ran for the Libertarian nomination, but now supports Barr. "He did hideous things but has personally admitted and apologized for them. We have to have patience for these recovering Republicans."Not all Libertarians do. At their convention in Denver this spring, Barr's voting record spooked party loyalists and he didn't clinch the nomination until the sixth ballot. And though he's currently polling higher than any previous Libertarian presidential nominee, the lack of confidence from within the base has stalled fundraising. As of September 12, Barr had only raised $881,500."Barr's people have not understood that they don't know how to appeal to or motivate or get money out of the Libertarian base of activists, those 15,000 hardcore money-giving people. They were proceeding [under the assumption], I believe, that they could pull a Ron Paul and come out of nowhere and get $35 million over the internet," says Nolan, who claims that the Barr campaign has not sent out a single fundraising letter. "They want Ron Paul's support but they fail to tap into his main issue, which is the money situation. There is an increasing awareness of the Federal Reserve. You are not picking up on Ron Paul's issues, so how can you count on his support? I think he is a good candidate but has run a bad campaign.""Ron Paul did not drain our money," says George Phillies, a physics professor who ran for the Libertarian nomination. "He published his donor list and my campaign was able to pick up 100,000 names that way, which we could compare with Libertarian Party membership lists. … There was a ten percent overlap."Party unity has been a concern for the Greens, as well, due in part to the fallout from a misguided strategy last election cycle. In 2004, the party was fractured. One faction believed in running what was called a "Safe State Strategy," meaning the Green candidate would not campaign in swing states. The other wanted an all-out campaign to differentiate themselves from the Democrats. The "Safe State" contingent won and nominated David Cobb, who ran under the radar and whose popular vote tally proved it. Instead of being in it to win it, Cobb's campaign was a figurative waving of the white flag. It appeased left-leaning Democrats, who mostly agree with the Green Party's principals but who, after 2000, will probably never stray in that direction again. It's essentially a struggle between idealism and pragmatism."There are people that are Green-leaning, but they are afraid to take that leap," says Julia Aires, former co-chair of the Green Party in Florida. "It's very unfortunate because until people are willing to step out and build a party, we will never be able to be that alternative that people want and need so badly.""It's what I call the Kucinich Democrats," says Peter LaVenia, co-chair of the New York State Green Party. "They have this illusion that someone like Dennis is going to come along and the party is suddenly going to change. I respect Dennis, but I think it's an illusion that anything is going to change because of him. I think there are these white middle-class people who desperately want the Democratic party to change, but we haven't found the formula yet for attracting them. You look at Barack, I think that his speeches about hope and change are empty rhetoric. It's pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain that it really is just words-they don't have much depth to them. The problem is, people are desperate."Rosa Clemente, the Green Party's vice presidential nominee, is not interested in reminiscing over 2000. She says the goal of the Green ticket is to receive 5 percent of the vote, to qualify for matching funds. It would be a step in the right direction to give more choices to the electorate. "People always say how fucked up the elections are in Africa or in Haiti," she says. "But in those elections, more than two people run. You can come from the depths of South Africa or Nigeria or Ghana and there are more than two people running for president-there is more of a parliamentary representative type of government. We're in a two-party system and we're supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world? That makes no sense."Tonight's fundraiser, which is also Clemente's first speaking engagement since accepting the nomination, is a step toward rectifying that. But Clemente, who is dressed in a horizontal-striped halter dress with a peace sign over the abdomen and door-knocker earrings, and who sports tattoos of Cuba and the continent of Africa on her arms, is running late.It's at Galapagos, a bar and performance space in Brooklyn, and it smells like pot. Clemente will introduce some of tonight's speakers: There's "Evergreen Joe," a local Green politician who gets big cheers for quoting the late Green Party candidate for governor, "Grandpa" Al Lewis of The Munsters. There's La Bruja, a spoken-word artist and musician. She recites a poem called "The Pussy Piece."About an hour into the event, I do a head count. Discounting the one toddler, there are 53 people. And a motley crew they are, unified less (it seems) by the Green platform than by something more elusive: an alternative to the party that failed them.One of them is Ann Eagen, a lifetime Democrat who became disgusted with the party after its treatment of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. "The Democrats are the party of the corporations who own the country," she says. "Maybe their candidates are kinder and gentler [than the Republicans], but their aims are the same."Eric Alterman, author of Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, doesn't buy it. "Ralph Nader said in 2000 that there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between [Republicans and Democrats]. Bad prediction," he says. "The only people who were willing to risk an administration like the Bush administration, who profess to care about the things that Greens profess to care about, are people who are totally not serious about politics. It's people who think of politics as a form of therapy as opposed to a means of getting things done."Before the event gets going, I also meet a middle-aged man named Richard Degen, who's wearing cut-off denim shorts and a T-shirt swathed in political buttons ("Free Mumia,"  "No Blood for Oil"; 12 in all). He's swigging from a container of Paul Newman Lemonade that he smuggled into the event. Next to him is Robert Hernandez, 49, from Bedford-Stuyvesant. They conduct speak-outs every Thursday in Manhattan's Union Square ("If you hear a bullhorn in Union Square, it's us"). "They finally picked a great ticket. Two powerful women. And what do you get from Obama and McCain?" Hernandez asks. "Clueless."Soon, both take turns on the soapbox. They rant about the Tompkins Square Park riots, the Vietnam War, and SAT scores. They also predict a resurrection of 1960s radicalism."We don't stay complacent like robots and listen to our iPods and chat on our cell phones and take everything for face value," Hernandez says. "People hate us, but we don't care."It has nothing to do with the next president. It doesn't have much to do with the Green Party, either. But you get the feeling he wants to change the world. He won't, but at least he's having fun expressing himself.Why Vote? View 1,564 more reasons here.
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How Not to Win the Presidency