Does The Libertarian Party Matter ?
Bruce Bartlett doesn’t really think so:
Although this may turn out to be a banner year for the Libertarian Party, the LP is not a real alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. Because of the Electoral College, restrictions on ballot access and onerous campaign finance laws, third parties simply aren’t viable for actually electing candidates. Nor do they pull the major parties toward their position: Ron Paul’s success did not encourage other Republican presidential candidates to even pay lip service to his ideas.
I believe that libertarian ideas would be better promoted by an interest group such as the National Rifle Association than through the Libertarian Party. Such a group could use the limited resources available for libertarian ideas far more effectively by establishing a political action committee, lobbying and advertising than by a political party running futile campaigns for public office. Nevertheless, the Libertarian Party may be an interesting force this year.
Bartlett makes the mistake that many people make when looking at the role of third-parties in America’s political system.
Does Bob Barr, or whoever the Libertarian Party nominates this weekend, have a realistic chance of winning the Presidency ? Obviously, the answer is no — and this would be true even without the Electoral College.
But that’s not the only reason to run a third-party campaign, as long as you have the right candidate and the right conditions. The Green Party received a lot of attention in 2000 because they nominated Ralph Nader; in the end, they received nearly 3,000,000 votes (2.5 million more than the LP candidate) and, arguably, cost Al Gore Florida and the election. More importantly, parts of their agenda, most notably their stands on environmental issues, have become part of the Democratic Party’s agenda.
Imagine if the Libertarian Party could do the same thing in 2008. Let’s say Bob Barr pulled in 1.5 million or more votes — not enough to win, but potentially enough to cause John McCain problems in states like Georgia (15 Electoral Votes) or Virginia (13 Electoral Votes). That alone could be enough to give the election to Barack Obama.
In the aftermath of such a campaign, one would think that smart Republicans would be wondering what they could do to bring the fiscal conservative/libertarian vote likely to be attracted to the LP. And that could be the first step in changing the party for the better.
Bob Barr might not win the election, but a successful 2008 campaign could have a significant impact on where the GOP goes after defeat.
As far as Bartlett’s suggestion that interest groups are better avenues for change than political parties, I’ll admit I’m sympathetic to it. The fact that The Cato Institute has managed to become a part of the public policy debate inside the Beltway without compromising core libertarian principles is, on the whole a good thing. As is the existence of an organization like the Institute For Justice, which is on the way to becoming what the ACLU never was — a public policy law firm that truly defends individual liberty.
At the same time, though, when there’s an opportunity to make an impact in what has already been one of the most historic elections in recent American history, I don’t see any good reason for passing it up.