by Jerome Tuccille by Jerome Tuccille
A few weeks ago I posted an article on this site, discussing the opportunities for a viable third-party presidential candidate in 2004. Most of the e-mails I received were supportive, except for one urging me to vote for George W. Bush instead of a third-party candidate (sorry, but the man doesn't have a libertarian bone in his body), and a couple of others asking me to lend my support to a group called Libertarians for Dean. The Dean candidacy made some sense on the grounds that, first, he was opposed to the war in Iraq; second, he wanted to balance the budget; third, he was a good civil libertarian supporting gay civil unions, First Amendment rights, and other issues; and, fourth, he supported gun rights, which made him a refreshing oddity among Democrats. On the negative side of the ledger, he promised to repeal all of George W's tax cuts and was beginning to sound a bit like Dick Gephardt on free trade, but at least he warranted a closer look from libertarians who believed that extracting Bush from the White House was the number-one priority.
All of that blew up in Iowa following Dean's inexplicable primal scream meltdown, which prompted New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to label the man a "World Wide Wacko." Immediately, the videotape of Dean's disturbing rant became fodder for late-night talk shows and comedy filler for daytime network television. Dean's idiotic performance is destined to go down as one of those life-defining moments that destroys a man's political career in a microsecond as it were — on a par with Edmund Muskie dissolving into tears on the campaign trail in 1972, and Michael Dukakis donning an oversized combat helmet in 1988 that made him look like a five-year old playing soldier in his father's uniform. It's too bad in a way; Dean may be a whack job, but he's the only Democratic candidate with a pulse.
The question now for libertarians, from a strategic standpoint, is which direction to take this year. A sizable percentage of libertarians refuses to vote under any circumstances, a larger group supports the Libertarian Party, another contingent defaults to the Republican Party as the lesser of two evils, and a small but growing faction is tilting toward the Democrats, who are generally better on civil liberties than the Bush Republicans.
It strikes me that the Republicans as "the lesser evil" theory no longer carries any weight, notwithstanding their classical liberal rhetoric. A case can be made that Bill Clinton was a better "Republican" than the current ruler of the White House. Clinton supported free trade (Bush gave us steel tariffs), he overhauled welfare (Bush expanded Medicare), and he was a miser on spending compared with Bush (who is generating record deficits). So the old argument that Republicans are better on economics than Democrats is no longer valid. The only benefit we received from Bush was a tax cut, parceled out in dribs and drabs over ten years, in contrast to a whopping tax hike imposed by Clinton. But tax cuts combined with a grotesque increase in federal spending makes no sense at all, despite the nonsense spewed by supply siders, and is no way to trim the sails of government. A higher debt burden that has to be paid for by subsequent generations is no tax cut at all.
That leaves libertarians one of three choices in 2004, and possibly for many years to follow. Support no one, including the LP candidate; support the LP or another third-party contender; or vote for the Democrat in order to get rid of Bush before he launches another preemptive war, restricts civil liberties further with even more onerous twists to the so-called Patriot Act, and sinks us deeper into the quicksand of mounting budget deficits. This is not an easy choice for people who value personal liberty, economic freedom, and less government meddling in the affairs of other nations. We all have our own styles and preferences about how to deal with repressive government, and political strategy is something that like-minded people can (and will) debate about ad infinitum.
At the moment, my own inclination is to sit back and let the silly season unfold its way to the November elections. I may be wrong, but I don't see how Dean can salvage the wreckage of the Iowa caucus. Maybe the man really is not a raving lunatic, but when you've reduced yourself to a joke on the Jay Leno show (Does anyone out there really want to give this man control over our nuclear arsenal?), you've succeeded in committing ritual suicide.
On the other hand, Kerry, Edwards, Clark, and Lieberman can hardly inspire their own troops let alone a bunch of red meat libertarians, so it's an open question whether any of them represents a better alternative to Bush. (Clark, in particular, reminds me too much of Alexander Haig of "I'm in control here" fame.) The LP candidate is up in the air at this point. Hollywood producer Aaron Russo has pots of money to spend on a bid of his own and is talking about launching an independent campaign if he fails to get the LP nomination. I don't know much about him except that he's got the ability to command some media attention with a well-financed campaign and some genuine celebrity endorsements. Everything will gradually fall in place in coming months.
Unfortunately, I don't have any magic answers to our current political plight. I used to advocate not voting at all but have changed my mind on that issue. Someone is going to win, and I'm enough of a political animal to want to have some small, futile say about which politicians are going to affect my life in coming years. I live in Maryland, which recently elected the first Republican Governor in thirty years, Bob Ehrlich, who calls himself a libertarian, supports abortion rights, gun rights, decriminalized the use of marijuana for "medical" purposes, and promised to hold the line on taxes. Contrast those positions with his opponent, a member of the Kennedy clan, who, along with a Democratic legislature, would have raised taxes in a heartbeat and drummed handguns out of existence in the state.
I'd like to see more open-ended discussion on political strategy among libertarians from various persuasions, ranging from Camille Paglia Democrats to Ron Paul Republicans, from left-libertarians to anarcho-capitalists. Maybe someone out there has a plan that would make sense to the rest of us. It's too easy to sit back and dismiss all politicians as money-grubbing, war-mongering thugs on a power trip. It may be true in the case of career politicians at least (the vast majority), but it's not moving us any further along the road to genuine freedom.