CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --Bob Barr's campaign for president would be funny if it weren't so serious.
Whereas McCain rallies draw thousands, and Obama rallies tens of thousands, the Libertarian candidate spoke last night to about 100 people in a UNC classroom. The board had just been erased, and a little cloud of chalk hovered behind Barr, who looks a little like a professor anyway. Or at least Richard Dreyfuss playing a professor.
Barr wasn't much on the stump--he didn't talk about his credentials, and he doesn't have a catch phrase. He is charismatic if you like dry, erudite humor.
"My sons played soccer, and I went to a lot of games," he said. "I remember those conversations in the bleachers: no one was talking about Keynes or the Austrian school of economics. Now, maybe they talk about those things at hockey games in Alaska, but I'd say my being a soccer dad in Georgia no more qualifies me to be president than being a hockey mom in Alaska."
The audience--a good 90% of whom were men, and a good number of those in jeans and white tennis shoes--gave a low, appreciative chuckle.
When Barr finished his talk, which started and ended exactly on time, he asked if he could perhaps have a drink of water before the Q&A. No one seemed to think it was his responsibility to produce a glass or bottle. While the president of the College Libertarians collected note cards with questions, the candidate cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes. Eventually someone called out, "There's a water fountain just outside if you want a quick drink." Barr darted into the hallway and returned a few minutes later, apparently satisfied with the non-celebrity treatment.
But that of course is Barr's point: elections have become constrained, limited, un-substantive processes. Although Barr is on the ballot in most states, he is not really campaigning to win, and it is unclear that he will make even enough of a dent among Republicans to compromise McCain.
Instead, Barr's campaigning to get Americans to "open up the process" and demand more political parties, more honest debate, and a more authentic picture of candidates and how they would respond to "anything remotely resembling a real-life situation."
Barr's argument centers around defining the job of the president. Is it simply to manipulate the levers of power? he asked. To manage the economy? To provide security?
Or--and here the emphasis in his voice betrays that this is the right answer--"To protect and defend the freedom of the American people as guaranteed by the Constitution."
In Barr's view, the more authority government has, the less the citizens do. After all, we give government power by virtue of our taxes and our consent. For example, Barr cites the Departments of Education and Energy, relatively recent inventions. Only tenuously Constitutional in the first place, these departments have failed year after year in meeting their goals, yet both Obama and McCain are planning to expand them.
"Their view of government is to do things," Barr said. "Democrats and Republicans are for increased power and bureaucracy in Washington."
In general, Barr does not have much good to say about the mainstream candidates. At his most complimentary, he quotes Judge Brandeis: "The greatest dangers of liberty lie in the zeal of well-meaning individuals."
McCain and Obama may be well-meaning, Barr concedes--but they don't understand the proper role of the president or the federal government.
At worst, in Barr's view modern politics is an example of raw arrogance. For this he points to the lack of accountability in the bailout package, and on Sarah Palin's refusal to answer questions in the vice presidential debate.
"I have to admire her gall," Barr said. "She just told the American people, 'I don't care what you want to know. Here's what I want to tell you.' She didn't even bat an eye. Well, maybe she winked."
Unlike Ron Paul, who's working to reform the party from within, Barr believes that change will come only from the outside--from the American people demanding that the standard of public discourse be raised.
Yet, Barr is vague at best on the mechanics of that movement. People who hear his message of reform can pay their $25 and join the Libertarian Party, or--he waved his hand breezily--"write letters to the editor, spread the message, talk to friends..."
Even the College Libertarians, who sponsored the evening, have only recently had their constitution recognized by the university (which seemed ironic), and they admit it's hard to compete with the Young Democrats and College Republicans, especially this year, when so many young people are fired up about Obama.
In fact, most people in the room weren't even students. They were simply dedicated Libertarians, delighted that their own candidate was making an appearance in a state that has been drowned in Republican and Democratic rallies these last weeks.
"Of course I'm voting for Bob Barr," said Greg Robertson, blinking at the absurdity of any other option. "It's the only logical choice."
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