It's a familiar story told by third-party and independent presidential candidates every four years: Washington is broken. The Democrats and the Republicans are part of the problem. It's time for Americans to choose a different way.
True to form, those are the arguments of Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr as he tries to influence the general election this November. Despite his problems—low name recognition, relatively little money, severe obstacles in qualifying to be on the ballot in many states, and virtually no chance of being included in the three presidential debates—Barr could have an impact.
That's because the cerebral, mustachioed former Republican representative from Georgia might have enough support in a handful of battleground states to swing a close election. He cites polls that say he is attracting up to about 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and Nevada, two battleground states. If that holds up, he could make a huge difference. Most of those votes would likely come from the individualistic, anti-Washington, Libertarian wing of the GOP—and hurt Republican John McCain.
One can conjure up even more of an impact by adding liberal firebrand Ralph Nader, Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, and other "outsider" candidates into the mix, even as write-ins. If each receives a percent or two of the vote in the New Hampshire and Nevada polls, it could make the outcome impossible to predict and disrupt the plans of the major parties by forcing them to channel more resources into those states.
Of course, Barr and the other outsider candidates could also end up as asterisks in history with little or no support. But Barr perseveres on the hope that he will score some kind of breakthrough.
In an interview Friday, he predicted that the "aura" of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin will fade in a few weeks and the race for the White House will end up where it always does—as a contest between the presidential nominees. At that point, if history is a guide, the veep candidates will become a sideshow.
That prospect, Barr reasons, will encourage Americans to shift from a focus on Palin and give his candidacy a fresh look.
He seems realistic in his assessments. He knows he can't win. But he points out that Texas billionaire Ross Perot captured 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Perot apparently drew most of his support from Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush, and this helped Democratic newcomer Bill Clinton to take the White House.
Barr isn't troubled by the role of a spoiler who could give the presidency to another newcomer, Barack Obama. He says his bigger goal is to affect policy. He traces eventual congressional action on the balanced budget, welfare reform, and term limits at least in part to Perot's influence in the 1992 campaign.
Barr argues that dissatisfaction with Washington today is probably higher than it was in 1992. Recent polls show that 8 of 10 Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. Most are very dissatisfied with the job performances of both President Bush and Congress.
Barr's website carries the slogan "Send Them a Message"—signaling that he offers his own brand of change in a campaign in which that word has become the dominant theme. Barr says McCain, with all his years in the Senate, "is not an agent of change by any stretch of imagination." Barr adds that Obama, the Democratic nominee, has such a thin résumé that he also has little credibility as a change agent.
Barr says he wants to be known as the candidate associated with tax reform, immediately freezing and then slashing federal spending, limiting the power of the executive branch, which Barr says Bush has expanded in a dangerous way, and ensuring civil liberties, which he says have been seriously eroded under Bush.
The former congressman seems to lack the charisma and certainly the fortune available to Perot, but he hopes to emulate the outsider of '92 by surprising the skeptics and playing a substantial role in '08.