The last time a Republican or Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention began with serious uncertainty was 1964, when Arizona's Barry Goldwater emerged with the Republican nod, famously proclaiming that "extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice" and that "moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue." The excitement of a hotly contested nominating convention has since been the sole province of political parties which oppose the two-party system.
If the 652 delegates at the 2008 Libertarian Party National Convention were looking for this type of excitement Sunday in Denver, they certainly got their money's worth. After six contentious rounds of balloting, two of which resulted in ties for first place, a majority of delegates finally handed the party's presidential nomination to former Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia.
By a margin of 324-276, Barr bested Dr. Mary Ruwart, a longtime party activist and author of the libertarian bestseller Healing Our World. Speaking to delegates prior to the Saturday night debate, which featured seven candidates and was broadcast live on C-SPAN, Ruwart described the nomination contest as "truly a fight for the heart and soul of the party." She said she welcomed newcomers such as Barr and former Democratic Senator Mike Gravel to the party, but criticized aspects of their platforms as insufficiently libertarian. She argued that as a friend of Congressman Ron Paul, she would be more able than Barr to capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm of the "Ron Paul Revolution."
Barr is the first to admit that his path to the Libertarian Party, which he joined in 2006, did not exactly follow a straight line. In fact, the party had targeted him for electoral defeat in 2002 as part of a strategy to attack the "worst drug warriors in Congress." A hard-hitting television advertisement criticizing his opposition to medical marijuana helped sink Barr in a Republican primary against Rep. John Linder, which pitted two incumbents whose districts had been merged.
The party's ire had been partly inspired by a piece of legislation called the Barr Amendment. This 1998 Amendment was written and passed to keep votes from being counted on a medical marijuana ballot initiative in the District of Columbia. When a counting of the ballots was ordered by a judge, it was found that the measure had succeeded by a 69% to 31% margin, but the Barr Amendment continues to prohibit the reform's implementation.
Rob Kampia, delegate from what he half-jokingly referred to as "the 'taxation without representation' non-state of DC" and executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, assured skeptics of Barr's sincere conversion in a nominating speech. Kampia explained that Barr had for two years been lobbying Congress to end federal raids in states where medical marijuana patients are protected under state law. Kampia also said Barr has lobbied Congress to repeal the Barr amendment, which truly demonstrates the sincerity of his conversion and "shows humility."
The top candidates were tied 186-186 after the third ballot and 202-202 after the fourth ballot, which eliminated Gravel. Third place Wayne Allan Root of Las Vegas then threw his support behind Barr and announced that he would be happy to fill the vice-presidential slot on a Barr ticket. The fifth ballot eliminated Root, and the sixth ballot delivered Barr the majority he needed to carry the nomination.
The delegates then chose Root for the what Barr promised would be "the strongest ticket in the history of the Libertarian Party."
When I spoke with Barr on Saturday, he praised delegates at the convention for their focus on fundamental problems and solutions. "The one striking difference between Republican conventions and this Libertarian Party convention is that every single person here that I talk with wants to talk about substance," he told me. They're not interested in the superficial aspects of politics."
In the debate, Barr apologized to delegates for his mistakes on the road to libertarianism, which included authorship of the Defense of Marriage Act (Barr promised he would work to repeal it) and his vote for the 2001 PATRIOT Act, which Barr has vigorously opposed since 2002.
Some longtime libertarians were skeptical of Barr's conversions. The conflict underlying this split between top candidates revealed a deeper schism between party members who disagree over the party's direction. Libertarians who support the party's traditional platform despite its explicit philosophical radicalism arrived at this convention hoping to undo changes to the party platform which had been adopted by reformers in 2006. For this wing of the party, it is considered more important for a candidate to clearly and consistently articulate libertarian philosophy than to earn the maximum possible number of votes or gain the maximum possible amount of exposure.
Morey Straus, a San Francisco activist who resettled in New Hampshire in 2006 as a participant in the Free State Project, was among the disappointed Ruwart supporters. Straus argued that by nominating Barr and Root, "Libertarians risk furthering the misconception that we are just another wing of conservatism." This, he said, was more important than votes because "Libertarianism is not right or left."
On the other hand, many delegates observed that Barr's candidacy is well-poised to attract conservative voters away from John McCain, and many believed the media spotlight on Barr's marijuana policy conversion could have a considerable impact on conservative Republican audiences across the United States.
Regardless of the ideas at stake, the suspense of this convention was exhilarating for the candidates and delegates. It's hard to imagine, but if the Republicans and Democrats still had nominating conventions like this one, how much better would they do in the ratings?