Bob Barr: The privacy candidate for president

Former Republican congressman, now a Libertarian candidate for president, is aiming for the pro-privacy geek vote. It may not win the election, but it could disrupt it.

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr talks up privacy last week at a political conference in Las Vegas, saying there's little difference between Barack Obama and John McCain on the topic. Declan McCullagh/News.com

LAS VEGAS--Bob Barr hopes his enthusiasm for electronic privacy will boost his Libertarian Party campaign for the White House. Call it a long-shot bid for the geek vote.

Absent Barack Obama and John McCain found in flagrante delicto with, say, Osama bin Laden and a 12-year old, Barr will not be the next president of the United States. But he is polling surprisingly well, with a Zogby poll last week putting him at 6 percent nationally, meaning he could siphon away enough limited-government votes from McCain to affect the November election.

Barr was a GOP member of Congress best known for leading the floor battle to impeach President Clinton. After losing his Georgia congressional seat in 2002, he became an ACLU consultant and privacy activist, and won the Libertarian presidential nod after a pitched floor battle in which some delegates angrily accused him of being more right-wing than right-thinking.

Speaking here at a political conference on Friday, Barr focused almost exclusively on privacy and eavesdropping--and argued that both major parties are far too surveillance-happy. "Both of them will continue down the same track," Barr said, noting that both McCain and Obama supported last week's bill to immunize telecommunications companies that illegally opened their networks to government snoops.

Congress' legislative rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is "not about surveilling al-Qaida," Barr said. "It's about surveilling U.S. citizens in America." He added, for good measure: "This administration is the most anti-privacy, the most anti-individual freedom, in our nation's history, certainly in my lifetime."

This is hardly a Bush-McCain species of Republican speaking. It underlines Barr's appeal: If you're a traditional conservative who disagrees with the big-government policies, the surveillance, the inflation, the deficit spending, and the wars of the Bush administration, vote for me. I was one of you, once.

It might work. More precisely, it might work well enough--think a Republican equivalent of Ralph Nader--to make a difference in states that would have tilted toward McCain otherwise. It's certainly a more attractive message than that of the Libertarians' 2004 candidate, a telemarketer-turned-programmer.

Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican with a libertarian bent who made an unsuccessful bid for the 2008 presidency, represents one argument for the theory of a third candidate potentially hurting McCain. More than 10 percent of the Republican electorate, and far more in some states--like Idaho, where he won 24 percent of the primary vote--share his libertarian view. Plus there's the remarkable post-primary success of Paul's book (No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list and at or near the top of the lists on Amazon.com).

Barr would surely do anything, except perhaps shave his prominent mustache, if he could lure those tech-savvy, Internet-donating Paul-istas. But his arch-conservative voting record could be a hindrance.

Barr, a former CIA employee and federal prosecutor, voted for the Patriot Act; he voted for the Iraq War resolution; he voted for a 2002 warrantless surveillance bill called the Cyber Security Enhancement Act; he tried to restrict the practice of Wicca in the military; he wanted to ban a subset of computer-generated porn. On each of those votes, Paul went in the opposite direction.

For his part, Barr says he has become an honest-to-goodness convert to the cause of electronic privacy and limited government. He said a long time ago that he regrets voting for the Patriot Act; he wants an Iraq withdrawal "without undue delay"; the head of the Marijuana Policy Project formally nominated Barr at the Libertarian convention; Barr even endorsed a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2004. He founded a group called the American Freedom Agenda that opposes the White House's policies in the so-called war on terror, and his supporters note he embraced a wealth of privacy measures while in Congress (see our coverage from 2002).

"Electronic privacy has been his forte for a long time," said Brad Jansen, an ex-Paul staffer turned Barr enthusiast who runs a group advocating greater financial privacy. "It was his signature issue with the ACLU, and is topical now with the FISA ruling last week. He certainly differentiates himself from both McCain and now Obama on the issue."

It's true that under the we-absolutely-must-recapture-the-White-House theory, many Democrats will vote for Obama, no matter that he flip-flopped on retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies. (He voted for an unsuccessful amendment stripping it out, but then for the entire bill with it included.) But some progressive bloggers are finding that decision impossible to forgive.

McCain's position on wiretapping and retroactive immunity has been mostly, but not entirely , consistent--see our tech voters' guide from January. That makes the Arizona senator a more stationary target for Barr. "Sen. McCain has made very, very clear that he basically embraces the notion of unfettered executive power," Barr said.

Barr also likes to swipe at the Real ID Act, a law creating a federalized identity card that's effectively on hold until December 31. "It was passed by the Congress not as a national ID, which it is in every way except a name," he said. "It is a national ID for the first time in our nation's history...If certain people were elected president, it would not go into effect."

During the Libertarian Party's presidential debate in Denver, the candidates were asked what they'd do about Real ID and the Patriot Act. Barr's reply was captured on video by C-SPAN: "Fear has become the driving force behind all public policy in our country...(For the Patriot Act), I'd drive a stake through its heart, shoot it, burn it, cut off its head, burn it again, and scatter its ashes to the four corners of the world."

The Zogby poll released last week puts Obama at 44 percent, McCain at 38 percent, and Barr at 6 percent--a combination that hands Obama a handsome electoral college majority.

"Bob Barr could really hurt McCain's chances," pollster John Zogby said. "McCain can't afford the level of slippage to Barr we found among conservatives in this polling...Bob Barr has some juice among conservatives and is hurting him in several states."

On one hand, Barr's breadth of support doesn't seem to be an aberration: a Rasmussen poll released May 18 also gives him 6 percent of the nationwide vote, including 7 percent of Republicans and 5 percent of Democrats. On the other hand, support for third parties tends to wane as the November election nears, as pollster Mark Blumenthal points out on NationalJournal.com.

For now, Barr seems enthusiastic about positioning himself as the candidate who most supports digital privacy.

"The best way to control the populace is to take away their privacy," he said. "The digital age, and what will come after that, makes it much, much easier for the government to abuse those powers and erode the Fourth Amendment."

 

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