In all the Memorial Day excitement you might have missed it, but over the weekend the Libertarian Party nominated former Georgia congressman Bob Barr as its presidential candidate. Barr was chosen on the sixth ballot in Denver, a far livelier and more contested convention that either the Republicans or Democrats are likely to have.
The Libertarians along with the Green Party are the two largest of our two dozen or so third parties. The fact that “third party” is a generic term attests to the dominance of the two major parties and if the past is any indication, come November the third parties will garner only in the low single digits as a percentage of the popular vote and end up with no electoral votes.
The last truly successful third party was Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860, although in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt, running as a Progressive Party candidate, outpolled his onetime fellow Republican and cost William Taft the presidency.
Third parties have always been a part of American politics. The Prohibition Party has been around since 1869 and the Socialist Labor Party since 1877.
But third parties are more than spoilers and distractions in American politics. Often they introduce new ideas into American politics and, sadly for the third parties, if these ideas gain popular currency they are co-opted by the two major parties.
The Green Party has nudged global warming into the national debate, and in 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, who got almost 19 percent of that debate, made the balanced budget a campaign issue and in 1997 Congress actually did it.
Becoming a libertarian is a curious political migration for Barr. He came to Congress in 1995 as part of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution and was one of the House managers for President Clinton’s impeachment. He was effectively redistricted out of Congress in 2002 and found a second career in a very libertarian cause, opposing the USA Patriot Act.
The one essential quality in a third party candidate is an almost obsessive optimism that somehow, some way a political miracle will happen. In his victory speech Sunday, Barr told his small band of partisans, “I want everybody to remember that we only have 163 days to win this election.” He certainly has the optimism.