When Libertarians attack

Bob Barr goes after John McCain for spending public money on the GOP convention. Could attacks like that make him the Ralph Nader of the right?

Published August 13, 2008 3:24PM (EDT)

Millions of dollars in corporate contributions are propping up the conventions later this month and next, but that's not the money Bob Barr wants you to worry about.

Barr, the Libertarian Party nominee for president, issued an outraged press release Wednesday morning, complaining about the federal subsidies that Republicans and Democrats alike are taking for the conventions. It's a lot of cash, actually -- $16 million each for operating expenses and $50 million each for security costs (most of which, if the 2004 conventions are any guide, will go to posting Transportation Security Administration workers at all the entrances to the arenas so they can confiscate umbrellas from delegates and reporters).

This is right up Barr's alley. "My party has already held its convention without a single taxpayer dollar in its support," Barr said. "But what can be more obnoxious than forcing taxpayers to underwrite other people's political opinions?" Libertarians don't always like it when the government pays for roads; you know they won't like it when the government's paying for their major-party competition.

What's interesting about the release, though, is the way Barr goes after John McCain more than Barack Obama. "Why is Sen. John McCain, supposed maverick and reformer, going along with the raid? How is he any different than any of the other people who fill Washington clamoring for a bailout?" Barr asks. "You'd think someone who postures as an opponent of special interests and government pork wouldn't expect the taxpayers to subsidize his own very special interest political campaign." (OK, to be fair, he also says it's not surprising that Obama's party is "trying to pry more money out of government" because Democrats always do that.)

If Barr is going to become the Ralph Nader of the right in 2008, it'll be because of attacks like this. The more Barr calls McCain a phony on government spending, the more chance he has of stealing some of the small-government conservative vote from him. In states like Georgia (where Barr's from), Alaska and Montana, all of which Obama claims he's targeting, that could help Democrats. That's not what Barr's trying to do, of course, but unless millions of Americans suddenly wake up and realize they, too, would like to get the government out of private industry's way, Barr is much likelier to help elect Obama than he is to be the first Libertarian president.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.