Can the Libertarians Go Mainstream?

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Jay Mallin / Bloomberg News / Landov

Wayne Allyn Root, left, Mike Gravel, moderator David Weigel, Bob Barr and Vern McKinley engage in a Libertarian Party debate in Washington, D.C., May 20, 2008.

It's been a good year for libertarians. Ron Paul may have decided to run as a Republican, but his gold-standard soul — and the millions in fund raising his personal freedom über alles platform has attracted — has proven the potency of libertarian ideas. And while Paul continues to garner G.O.P. primary votes (over a million have been cast for him so far) and inspire his freedom-loving followers, the party has found someone else with star power (by libertarian standards) willing to charge into the electoral breach: Bob Barr, two-term Republican congressman from Georgia. At the libertarians' national convention in Denver this weekend, Barr will vie for his new party's nomination against a host of other candidates, including Las Vegas sports handicapper Wayne Allyn Root, avuncular former democratic Senator Mike Gravel, and libertarian stalwart Mary J. Ruwart.

Like all good libertarians, the candidates will find plenty to disagree about in Denver. But behind each argument over how to implement the gold standard or which monument to federalism run amok — the Department of Education or the IRS — should be axed first, lies a more fundamental question: who can lead the party from the eccentric fringe to the dull but powerful mainstream?

Libertarianism today is, in some ways, where the conservative movement was in the 1950's. It has a loyal core and a platform that could energize a broader constituency; lower taxes and isolationism look good when the economy is tanking and the war in Iraq drags on. Most libertarians also support the rights of Americans to have abortions, own guns, smoke pot or do just about anything they can think of. (There's a little something for everyone.) But like postwar conservatism, the movement is also littered with crackpots and conspiracists who threaten to define the party as a radical movement — the kind of thing would-be voters don't feel comfortable supporting with a sign on their lawns.

It took William F. Buckley, Jr. and his National Review to establish control and set a new course for the conservative movement. But can anyone do the same for the libs?

The party's national leaders, who recruited Barr to the party in 2006, would seem to favor him. But Root, a boisterous Fox News regular, has been outhustling Barr all year, scrapping for delegates at every state convention. "I'm trying to change mainstream libertarianism," Root told me at his home in Las Vegas in early May. "I want to make us electable."

Both Barr and Root are former Republicans. But Barr wasn't just any Republican: he led the G.O.P. in a number of causes that are completely anathema to rank-and-file libertarians. A faithful social conservative throughout his tenure in the House, he helped quash Washington, D.C.'s right to vote on medical marijuana, upbraided the Pentagon for letting soldiers practice Wiccan beliefs, and led early attempts at preventing gays from marrying. Not exactly the stuff of libertarian dreams. In fact, one of the biggest political victories of the modern Libertarian Party was to unseat Bob Barr in 2002; they poured money into an anti-Barr campaign, ran attack ads and called him the "worst drug warrior in Congress". Another strike against Barr: he's a former CIA official and a former federal prosecutor. "To Libertarians," one of his opponents told me, "that's like being a child molester."

Barr now alternates between contrition for his past and highlighting his post-9/11 record of fighting against federal rollbacks of civil liberties. He works with both the ACLU and the NRA, and quotes Ayn Rand fluently. His platform these days is a soft libertarian diet of lower taxes, more privacy, and school choice. "Every citizen of this country, I believe, has some area of their lives [in which] they want to be left alone," he told Reason magazine recently. That is clearly the cadence the party thinks will appeal to a broader base. Handing the keys of the party to former Republicans runs the risk of creating a party that is G.O.P. Lite, but it's a risk the leadership seems eager to take.

Libertarian purists, however, don't plan to be locked in the attic like a crazy aunt. Case in point: last month's child-porn-gate.

The fracas started with Mary J. Ruwart, the candidate with perhaps the deepest, purest libertarian roots (her rejection of government is so complete that some party moderates have begun warning of the anarchical dangers of "Ruwarchy"). In April, a rival called her out for her thoughts in a 1999 book called Short Answers to the Tough Questions. "Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it's distasteful to us personally," Ruwart wrote. "When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will."

Ruwart's is a classic libertarian take — a defense of free will (even for "child performers") and an attack on government prohibitions of any kind. It's also political poison. As libertarian blogger Steve Newton put it, Ruwart and her allies run the risk of turning the party into "the poster child for NAMBLA and the aluminum hat brigade."

The party's executive director, Shane Cory, saw the danger as well, and rushed out a press release titled, "Libertarians call for increased communication to combat child pornography." Cory was attacked by hardliners who saw the release as an endorsement of increased federal prosecuting power. The party refused to vote on a resolution asking states to strongly enforce existing child porn laws. Cory resigned in protest, depriving a party in the midst of what may be its most promising election season of one of its most able organizers and fund raisers. But for many libertarian faithful, adherence to the most rigid of principles always trumps practical considerations about how those principles might be more broadly observed.

That rigidity has long been libertarianism's greatest asset. If the Democratic and Republican parties have any ideology, it's an ideology of power — their policies shift and twist in the wind according to what they think will appeal to the biggest slice of the electorate. Libertarians have no power, but they have consistency and principle. If they lose that — and, presumably, the general election as well — they may be left on November 5th with nothing at all.