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Observations on the 2008 Libertarian Debate

Saturday, May 24, 2008
A few of my observations and opinions on the Libertarian Party candidates after watching this year's Libertarian National Convention Presidential Debate on C-SPAN, listed by candidate, which I posted on thirdpartywatch.com:

Bob Barr: I've never been a particularly big fan of the former congressman, but Bob Barr does strike me as one of only three candidates (the others being Mike Gravel and Mary Ruwart) in this year's batch to have any real chance of making an impact in November. Barr clearly recognizes this fact and, consequently, projected an air of confidence and composure throughout tonight's debate. From what I could gather, the assembled crowd included some pretty big Barr enthusiasts, but a hefty number of vocal detractors as well. That said, Barr answered most of the questions directly, with practiced eloquence, and with suitable deference to a party he has only been a member of for a relatively brief period. He did address having authored the Defense of Marriage Act and seemed to use it to launch into a "I'm really one of you" spiel, but it seemed genuine enough. If anything, it was a less forced political gesture than, say, Dennis Kucinich's awkwardly contrived "Look here: I carry a copy of the Constitution in my pocket!" faux pas. As an experienced politician, Barr clearly knows how to speak in public, but does not really inspire much confidence and lacks the charisma one would like to see in a third party candidate struggling to get media exposure.

Mike Gravel: To be fair, I have always been a big Mike Gravel supporter, dating from the time he was a registered Democrat, so there will probably be some bias in my views -- but this is a blog, so I reckon it should be okay. At any rate, Gravel seemed to receive more cheers than any of the candidates save for Ruwart. I am not certain if this means that he simply has a louder group of supporters or if the former Alaska senator has more support than most other candidates, though I am hoping for the latter. As always, Gravel exuded a tremendous amount of energy, spoke eloquently and intelligently, and played to the audience. Of course, the senator made certain to emphasize the National Initiative and, like fellow recently-minted Libertarians Barr and Wayne Allyn Root, occasionally seemed eager to emphasize his Libertarian-ness. For the most part, though, the views Gravel expressed during the debate seemed consistent with those he has espoused for years as well as those embraced by many Libertarians, although he seemed to fumble when faced with a question on health care. While he has always expressed a desire to push for the privatization of health insurance, he has also spoke favorably of some state-sponsored health care systems at odds with right-leaning Libertarian economic policy. Still, like Barr and Ruwart, Gravel emerged as extremely well-qualified for a presidential campaign and seemed to enjoy a warm enthusiasm from the crowd when discussing such key topics as gay marriage, immigration, drug decriminalization (though, to be fair, all candidates seemed about the same on that issue), military expenditure as well as when he critiqued some of the party's more unrealistically utopian ideas. To my mind, Gravel remains the best candidate in the field, though I am not certain (given the number of tokens he received) if the party's core members will agree with me, a decidedly independent -- though interested -- onlooker.

George Phillies: As an academic, I really feel for Dr. Phillies. He's intelligent, very active in Libertarian Party affairs, and is extremely well-versed in Libertarian philosophy. I won't say he's the purest libertarian in the group, but he's close at the very least. The problem, as he is well aware, is that he does not look or sound like a good candidate. If words alone would be enough to convince people, he would be up there with Gravel, Barr, and Ruwart, in terms of his ability to win support but, unfortunately, he often comes across as a hopelessly nerdy intellectual -- certainly not the type of person able to compete with the photogenic Barak Obama, the media-minded Hillary Clinton, or the jingoistic John McCain. And it's a shame. I get a real sense that Phillies cares about people and wants to make the world a better place -- two qualities one almost never finds in a candidate.

Michael Jingozian: Jingozian, like Phillies, appears to really care about Libertarian ideas and has a sense of humor that most politicians lack. Unfortunately, while he seems to toe the party line on most issues, he seems lost among candidates like Gravel, Barr, Steve Kubby, and Root, who are considerably more experienced with the media. As a result, Jingozian does not inspire much confidence as a leader. Again, like Phillies, I think he's really, really good for the Libertarian Party and, I suspect, people more interested in promoting an idea and embracing a set of values than winning an election or achieving major party status will consider voting for him. And that isn't a bad thing. Like Root, Jingozian is a businessperson and brought a decidedly entrepreneurial spirit to the debate, planning ahead for party development. I get the feeling that he won't come close to the nomination, but if he remains behind the scenes, he'll do some great things for the eventual nominee.

Mary Ruwart: An extremely eloquent woman, Dr. Ruwart was quite eager to mention her long (and distinguished) track record within the Libertarian Party. Like Phillies and Kubby, Ruwart has been a Libertarian for quite some time and, while perhaps a bit more left-leaning than some, is pretty consistent with the majority of Libertarians on most major issues. She does occasionally project a certain cockiness, but she backs it up with knowledge and real well-thought-out arguments. She is possibly the best "Libertarian" candidate in the party and will speak well and represent the party with dignity and grace if nominated, but she lacks the media connections of Barr, Gravel, and Root. She did try to capitalize on her gender, positioning herself as poised to take advantage of the tide of gender politics stirred up by Hillary Clinton, but her best selling point, really, is her track record. She is a Libertarian and she knows what she is talking about.

Steve Kubby: I was pleasantly surprised by Steve Kubby. For some reason, I was expecting him to be less eloquent, but he spoke extremely well and, while he emphasized his experience with drug decriminalization throughout the debate, fielded questions in all areas with an intelligent and good-humored thoughtfulness. Like Phillies and Ruwart, Kubby discussed his long history working within the party and seems to really appeal to traditional Libertarians for precisely that reason. Like Ruwart, especially, Kubby strikes me as a left-leaning Libertarian with all the "right" stances but, unlike her, he doesn't seem to be a personality that will appeal to many non-Libertarian Americans, which is unfortunate. He's got a lot of good things to say.

Wayne Allyn Root: By far the worst candidate, Wayne Allyn Root is disturbingly unctuous, utterly supercilious, and seems phonier than anything Holden Caulfield would have had nightmares about at Pencey Prep. Truth be told, Root struck me as resembling the kind of kid who talks too much at parties, tries to be everyone's friend, and doesn't realize that everyone finds him obnoxious and a bit creepy. He'd be terrible as a candidate, though he's eager to promise how dynamic he'd be. Ultimately, the only people who will buy Root's schtick will be the sort of nine-to-fivers that shell out hundreds of dollars to attend vacuous Tony Robbins lectures.

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You're Elitist! No, You're Elitist! Nuh-uh! Uh-huh!

Sunday, April 13, 2008
Don't you just love the fuss everyone seems to be making over the comments Barack Obama made in San Francisco? In case you've forgotten, in reference to the working class Reagan Democrats the Democratic presidential hopeful has been struggling to win over, Senator Obama said:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Ever since the Huffington Post first reported on Obama's characterization of working-class Pennsylvanians as "bitter," the blogosphere, radio, newspapers, and television have been buzzing with excitement. Hillary Clinton and her supporters, of course, have jumped at the opportunity to portray Obama as hopelessly disconnected from blue collar America and, consequently, a horrible choice for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Obama, facing a potentially campaign-destroying firestorm, chose to respond to the criticism by acknowledging that while his wording mightn't have been wisely-chosen, his statements were actually, as the New York Times's Katharine Q. Seelye and Jeff Zeleny put it, "an expression of populist sympathy for a displaced working class," as indeed they could be interpreted. Not surprisingly, the Huffington Post continues to overflow with commentary on Mr. Obama's sentiments, both critical and supportive. While the website's bloggers tend to agree with Erin Kotecki Vest's assertion that "Senator Barack Obama is DEAD ON when he talks about the bitterness of residents," the people commenting on postings continue to stir the argument about whether or not such comments could be construed as evidence of either Obama's inability to speak enough like a politician to inspire confidence in his candidacy or of the elitist views that will inevitably alienate the working backbone of America if he becomes president (italics in the original). And it goes on and on, ad nauseum.

What's so funny about the whole ordeal, of course, is that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain--two of the people least in touch with America's working class--have been licking their chops at the prospects of twisting Obama's words around to make him appear elitist. Because, you know, they get Larry the Cable Guy or something.

And it certainly doesn't help that Obama made his comments in a "closed" environment, a detail lending an air of secrecy to the proceedings and fueling the "well, we weren't supposed to hear it, so it must be bad!" crowd. Still, I'm not saying that Barak Obama is, in fact, in touch with the working class; in fact, I doubt any Washington politician really, truly understands what it is like to live under the poverty line in a nation with a failing economy -- at least not at any time in recent memory -- but it really seems like a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Granted, we get to hear a load of platitudes in the wake of Obama's statement. For instance, Hillary reminds us, she "grew up in a church-going family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith," so she understands the people Barak Obama so clearly misunderstands. "The people of faith I know don't 'cling to' religion because they're bitter," Senator Clinton told supporters in Indianapolis yesterday, they "embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich."

Then people cheer.

And more people get killed in Iraq. But who's paying attention?

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