He Once Led the Charge to Impeach Bill Clinton. Now Bob Barr Wants Back in the Arena.

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May 15 2014 7:36 PM

The Third Coming of Bob Barr

The Georgia politician has returned to the Republican Party. He’s just hoping the Republican Party will have him.

Former U.S. Representative and Libertarian presidential hopeful Bob Barr speaks at the National Press Club September 5, 2008 in Washington, DC.
Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party's 2008 nominee for president, is back in the Republican saddle, and wants to be back in the congressional saddle too.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

HOLLY SPRINGS, Georgia—The letter was so compelling because no one expected Bob Barr to write it. It was January 2009, shortly after President Obama had put forward Eric Holder as his nominee for attorney general. Barr had just run for president as the Libertarian Party’s nominee, but he remained best-known as the tireless inquisitor of Bill Clinton. Republicans, eager to weaken Obama, were lacerating Holder for his role in Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich. Barr was not.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

“Mr. Holder and I may have had disagreements over policy matters during the time he served in the administration of President Clinton,” he wrote. “However, I never had reason to question his personal and professional integrity, or his deep understanding of and commitment to our Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.” Holder, he suggested, “will restore public confidence in the Department of Justice.”

Barr, at that time, seemed to be morphing into a sort of post-partisan figure. He’d left the GOP for the Libertarian Party in 2006, out of disgust for the Bush administration’s civil liberties record. “I’ve been very pleased to listen to some of the things some of the Democrat leaders are saying,” he told me then. He won the Libertarian nomination by telling activists that he’d “made mistakes,” like backing the war on drugs. “The last few times I’ve been on the same panel as Bob Barr,” Democratic New York Rep. Jerry Nadler told me recently, “we’ve been on the same side.”

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But in March 2013, Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey announced a run for Senate. Twenty-four hours later, Barr jumped into the race for Gingrey’s seat in the deep red northern suburbs of Atlanta—some of the turf he’d held between 1995 and 2003, when he was redistricted out of Congress and began his amazing journey across the ideologies. Three months later Barr informed readers of his syndicated column that “the time has come for Attorney General Holder to step down,” in order to “salvage” his reputation.

It’s the Holder letter, more than anything else Bob Barr has said, that has been weaponized by his six opponents. Not his evolution from a DOMA sponsor to a DOMA critic, not his sojourn in the Libertarian Party, not his brief advocacy for Haiti’s exiled president-for-life. It’s the three-page post-partisan letter he wrote for one nominee, and it’s a criticism he simply refuses to consider.

“It’s just politics,” Barr told me. I asked him why he thought Holder had “fallen,” or whether he ever expected better from the Obama administration. “What else would I say that I haven’t said already?” That was the end of the answer.

Barr’s slogan is “Experience, to Right the Wrongs,” and implicit in that is that he knows which mistakes he made. The theory of the Bob Barr comeback is that the Republican Party of 2014 has become more libertarian and more ready for what he’s good at—investigating and humiliating politicians.

“I missed the opportunity to actually draft and amend legislation,” Barr told me. “You simply can’t do that from the outside. Through teaching, through my law practice, in the private sector, you can influence the debate—but ultimately, in terms of passing and debating laws, you have to be in the arena.”

Barr barely won the 2008 Libertarian nomination, prevailing in a daylong ballot fight after gambling pro Wayne Allyn Root finished in third place and endorsed him over the longtime Libertarian activist Mary Ruwart, in exchange for a place on the ticket. The novelty of Bob Barr running for president intrigued the press, and the candidate earned time on The Colbert Report and a long profile in The New Yorker. Yet the Barr-Root ticket won only 0.4 percent of the vote, running third to Ralph Nader’s umpteenth (and last) attempt to ruin things for Democrats.

Barr’s reswitch “didn’t come as a surprise,” said Ruwart. Root, who’s also returned to the Republican Party and become an occasional Fox News pundit, was proud of his old running mate for rediscovering a path to relevance. “The system and the media bias make it impossible for third-party candidates to gain momentum and win elections,” he said.

The Libertarians—who ended up nominating another former Republican for president in 2012, and getting .99 percent of the vote—have moved on. “He never seemed to fit in with most of us,” said Doug Craig, chairman of the Georgia Libertarian Party. “He made it hard on us to get new people because they did not think we took libertarianism serious enough with his nomination. When Bob Barr and Wayne Root left the party, we actually had a spike in new members.”

Barr has gotten back on board with Republican orthodoxy, as it’s moved closer to what he believed. In 2008 he said that “the federal government’s approach to the war against drugs has been one that tramples on the very notion of federalism.” When I asked him whether he’d challenge D.C.’s new law decriminalizing marijuana—similar to something Barr had opposed in the 1990s—he started by saying that Congress absolutely had the right to vet the law.

“I’d have to take a long, hard look at it,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve focused on in the last couple of years.”

Still, Doug Craig was hopeful. Barr’s time with the Libertarians did seem to “move him closer to libertarianism.” He spent two years of his life telling activists and journalists of his new religion, and he’s returning to a Republican Party in which “NSA” is a curse word and Sen. Rand Paul is a tastemaker.

“The party has moved, though I don’t take credit for it,” said Barr. “It has to do to some extent with Ron Paul’s runs for the presidency, with Ted Cruz raising these issues. All of these things combined have brought the Republican Party back to its Reagan roots.”

He didn’t mention “the Tea Party,” but that’s the movement that makes him confident. On Tuesday night a conservative in the district had a couple of choices. He could attend a fundraiser for state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, Barr’s strongest challenger, where for a small fee he could meet the candidate and hear from RedState’s Erick Erickson.

“We need to not just send Republicans to Washington, but send conservatives into the general as our Republican nominees,” Erickson told me. “I like Bob Barr a lot, but I feel very sorry for him. He reminds me of Tolian Soran desperate to get back inside the Nexus.”

Alternatively, the conservative voter could head to the monthly meeting of the Canton T.E.A. Party, held at an old train depot in the suburb of Holly Springs. (The Canton group, like many in the movement, makes TEA into an acronym: “Taxed Enough Already.”) On the way in, he could pick up a brochure that made it clear why the Canton Tea Party vetted all the candidates and endorsed Barr.

“Bull Dog” Barr has some ideas about what to do with an out-of-control president – it’s called impeachment. He did it once with Clinton and he can do it again.

The meeting started at 7 p.m. with the Pledge of Allegiance and a few debates on local panics. Three candidates for school board strolled in to make their pitches, and all of them opposed the Common Core curriculum. To gasps, one activist held up a Common Core workbook that was on sale at the dollar store. “They had four of them,” she said.

Barr showed up halfway through the meeting, right after Rep. Paul Broun, the T.E.A. Party’s endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate. After waiting patiently through the school board talks, Broun spoke for 20 minutes, waving a copy of the Constitution and warning that “John Boehner has no clue about this document.”

Barr sat quietly while the rest of the room cheered. Once Broun was finished, the T.E.A. Party’s chairwoman, Carolyn Cosby, introduced Barr as a man of “character and commitment.”

The candidate paced the floor, apologizing for being a little tardy, because he was “at a Friends of the NRA dinner” and didn’t “mind sticking around to defend the Second Amendment.” Then came the pitch.

“One of the things I’ve been doing since I was, shall we say, involuntarily retired from the House a few years ago is teaching constitutional law,” he said. “These are third-year law students I teach or third- or fourth-year college students. The two materials I require are the Constitution—and it’s amazing how many of them haven’t read it—and the Federalist Papers.”

Barr walked his crowd through the greatness of the founding documents and the brilliance of the founders, pointing out that they wrote to each other in cursive. “We’re losing that as a requirement in our schools, to learn cursive!” he said. “I suspect that cursive writing has no place in Common Core, either.”

Then Barr described just how Congress was failing at its current tasks. It was good and fine that it had held Lois Lerner in contempt. But it had done the same to Holder and achieved nothing. Congress needed to look back to the investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal—“you remember that,” said Barr, pointing to an old and friendly face in the crowd—and remember that one of its congressional investigators once detained perps who wouldn’t hand over documents.

“Where are these people now that we need them?” Barr asked. “That committee chairman, once those witnesses showed up—and one was a Cabinet secretary—ordered the Capitol Hill police to take them into custody and detain them. The secretary screamed bloody murder. But the chairman was right. This has become a lost principle. We see it now, with this president issuing these executive orders, giving the high hat to Congress, while actually directing U.S. attorneys and officials not to enforce the law.”

Barr had more ideas. “Let’s say the president signs an executive order,” he said. “The next appropriations bill that goes through the Congress—the money he needs to pay Jay Carney and all those jerks who pretend to speak for the administration can be amended with one sentence: No funds appropriated here can be used to enforce Executive Orders 1, 2, 3, etc. It forces the president to the negotiating table. When I was in Congress, Tom DeLay—one of the best guys we had in there—when he was our majority whip and Newt was speaker, we never just let these bills come to the floor. We always went to the negotiating table. That’s how we got a balanced budget.”

A crowd of 30-odd Tea Party activists, all of them certain to vote and most of them planning to meet again twice this week, applauded the new Bob Barr.

“What we need are folks up there who have a backbone,” he said. “Those are some of the things I did when I was up there before, and by golly I would do them again.”

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