Freedom at the Ballot Box

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Every election has good news, at least every election does for libertarians like me. At the very laast, every election involves the defeat of several loathsome politicians who have used the power of theIr offIces to undermine liberty.

In this election, for example, former vice president Walter Mondale, long an advocate of high taxes and expanded state powers, was defeated in a bid for the U.s. Senate. And, if Newsweek’s Margaret Carlson is to be believed, virtually every candidate whom Bill Clinton tried to help was defeated. But every election also has its bad news. In this one, voters in New York re-elected Republican governor George Pataki, perhaps setting the stage for the pompous fraud – elected as a fiscal conservative, but a profligate spender in office – to seek the presidency. And marijuana legalization efforts were defeated everywhere they were on the ballot, except in the District of Columbia.

I might be happier with the election results, however, if I could enter fully into the spirit of “libertarians like me.” Since we reject huge portions of both parties’ agendas, the defeat of virtually anyone or anything proposed by a major party can seem like a victory for us. But we live in a real-world, and knee-jerk reactions like that don’t tell us much about the real world in which one party or candidate may be worse for liberty than the others. The question remains: did liberty advance in the November election, or not?

The answer is complicated. In a general way, Republicans won. For the first time since 1955, the GOP controls the presidency and both houses of Congress.* Out of all the years between 1931 and 2002, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for only ten, and in eight of those they had to deal with a Democrat in the White House. In

*1 know, briefly in 2001 they did, until Jeffords became an “Independent.”

theory, not having Congress and the White House under the same party’s control should make it harder for government to do much mischief. If Congress is controlled by one party and the presidency by another, the president should be more likely to veto legislation than he would if the same party controlled everything. And if the two houses of Congress are divided, so much the better. That’s the theory. The reality is that a power split between parties has generally yielded little better results than one party controlling the whole shebang, at least in recent years.

Since 1981, the only time the same party controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress was in 1993-95, under Bill Clinton. The Democrats introduced a lot of really awful legislation but got practically none enacted. Voters were so dismayed by the Democrat program that they turned control of both the Senate and the House over to Republicans, who had not controlled the House for 40 years. During that time of split power, the two parties usually compromised by each letting the other enact and implement part of its agenda. The GOP got more defense spending and the Democrats got more welfare spending, and both got all the pork-barrel spending they wanted.

When one party controlled everything, as was the case in 36 of the 50 years prior to 1980, it did little to implement the other party’s agenda, and pork-barrel spending in districts held by the opposite party was, shall we say, limited. To be fair, in all but two of those 36 years, it was the Democrats who controlled the government. And for most of those years, the Democrats were busy implementing radical agendas – the New Deal and the Great Society – that vastly stimulated the growth of government. But the period of Democrat control in the 1970s was not a period of uncontrolled government growth: it saw substantially lower defense spending, and the dismantling of various New Deal economic regulations.

Well, where do we stand today?

The Republican Prospect

For the past 25 years, Republicans have been more or less committed, in rhetoric at least, to a more constrained government. When they’ve held the presidency, they’ve blamed the huge growth of government on the Democrats who controlled Congress. When they’ve controlled

In theory, not having Congress and the White House under the same party’s control should make it harder for government to do much mischief. The reality is quite different.

 

Congress, they’ve blamed the continued growth of government on the Democratic president. Now the GOP controls it all. They no longer have any excuse for the growth of government and erosion of liberty. It’s time for them to put up or shut up. Or it would be a time if politics took place in what we normally view as the real world, a world in which bullshit is not a major currency.

But while it may be possible for Republicans to continue fooling some of their supporters, people who actually pay attention to politics will not be victimized by their attempts to obscure the slippage between rhetoric and policy. Either the Republicans will actually implement some constraints on government or it will become apparent to anyone with the slightest critical capacity that they are unwilling to do so. That’s a good thing – but not a very good thing.

The GOP victory was primarily the result of its ability to exploit war hysteria. It was the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 that made Bush popular, and it was his War on Terror that carried the GOP to victory. Arid war hysteria is seldom conducive to liberty: witness the very sorry showing of the marijuana legalization ballot measures in this election. Just about the only ballot measures whose results were unambiguously libertarian were measures to limit or reduce taxes. Of course, these are almost always popular: voters almost always want lower taxes. The problem is that voters also want higher spending, and are quite happy to evade the fact that every dollar the government spends is one that it has· already taken in taxes, directly from citizens or by the indirect method of inflation.

What about the policies the GOP supports? On election eve, The Wall Street Journal predicted that, “If Republicans control House and Senate,” we should expect:

• parts of President Bush’s tax cuts made permanent;

 

• drive for” tax reform”;

• defense spending growth; and

• drug-industry-friendly Medicare prescription benefit advances.

Certainly the GOP’s call for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent is a good thing, but the rest of the changes the Journal predicts are of mixed value at best. “Tax reform” almost always means tinkering with the tax code to reward your supporters and punish your opponents, thereby expediting future fundraising. Increased defense spending has to mean either higher taxes or more inflation. As for medical care: what Americans need is for the government to get out of the act entirely. It astonishes me that Republicans can call for less regulation of every other industry while supporting increased federal involvement in medicine. Is it any wonder

that the one segment of our economy that the government controls is the one where costs are skyrocketing?

The Democratic Prospect

 

Yes, the Republicans are preferable in some ways to the Democrats. Certainly the Republicans’ tax program is preferable in some ways to the Democrats’ proposal to make the system more” equitable” by means of “tax cuts” – for “workers” and other methods of redistributing wealth (i.e., taking it from people who produce it and giving it to others). One may also wonder at the Democrats’ call for a crackdown on corporate excess. Already, the crimes of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom are punishable by long prison terms – under current law, the white-collar criminals of these firms may very well spend more time in the gray-bar hotel than most murderers and rapists.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that the reason why the crooks at Enron and WorldCom got away with their crimes as long as they did was that so many people were drunk with profits from the obviously inflated stock market that they abandoned common sense. It should have been obvious to anyone who looked at the stock market boom of the past decade that a good deal of fraud was involved in it, but stockholders didn’t want to meddle with the goose that laid the golden eggs. Hey, their retirement fund was worth millions already, and if things continued to go as well as they were going, they’d soon all be billionaires.

Nearly a decade ago, I observed that the Democrats, who then held the presidency and both houses of Congress, were on the verge of a long-term, possibly permanent decline. People were losing their faith in the magical welfare state, and the Democratic Party was becoming an obsolete coalition of interest groups with little in common except lust for power and its perks. In the course of predicting that· Bill Clinton would be the last Democrat elected president for at least half a century and that the GOP would win the 1994 elections, I pointed out that the Democratic Party’s decline would accelerate, because its first casualties would be congresspersons from marginal districts, who tended for that reason
to be moderate. The radical leftists would then be in charge, and they would further alienate voters.

We are beginning to see this happen. After the election, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt resigned and Democrats chose Nancy Pelosi to replace him. Gephardt was, as Democrats go, a moderate, representing a middle- income St. Louis district that includes a substantial number of rural and suburban residents where Clinton barely managed to capture a majority of the vote in 1996, after carrying just 44% in 1992. Pelosi, by contrast, represents a tiny, high-income, 100% urban San Francisco district that Clinton carried with 76% of the vote in 1992 and 81% in 1996. She was hand-selected for her position by her predecessor, radical-leftist ward-healer Congressman Phil Burton.

The process of Democratic self- marginalization which began a decade ago continues.

The Libertarian Prospect

For libertarians, the most important races in this election were in Texas and Washington. In Texas, libertarian Congressman Ron Paul won re-election easily, garnering over two-thirds of the vote. In Washington, Jim Johnson, a libertarian seeking·a seat on the non-partisan Supreme Court, lost by a hair. Johnson, who was supported by the GOP and has a strong record on tax limits, property rights, and individual rights, was opposed by a staffer of the state’s Democratic attorney general and was victimized by a series of vicious attack ads during the week before the election. He managed to carry 30 of the state’s 39 counties, but votes from the big cities, and rural concentrations of wealthy retirees defeated him.

But when most people think about libertarians in politics, they’re thinking about “big L” libertarians; that is, libertarians who are active in the Libertarian Party. The Libertarian Party and its campaigns got a lot more publicity this year than in most off-year elections. LP campaigns and candidates made the national news five times before the election:

• The National LP spent $35,000 to oppose Republican Congressman Bob Barr in the GOP primary, purchasing attack ads on local television and cable. The ads hit hard at Barr’s support of the War on Drugs. Although the ads played virtually no role in ‘the outcome of the heavily financed battle between two incumbents – which Barr lost to another incumbent (also, notably, a drug warrior) by a huge margin – they nevertheless attracted some press coverage, if only for the novelty a fringe party buying ads designed to affect a major party primary election. The nearly universal opinion of political analysts is that the ads had no impact. Given the fact that both candidates support the drug

The GOP controls it all. They no longer have any excuse for the growth of government and erosion of liberty. It’s time for them to put up or shut up.

 

war, it’s hard to think of a worse investment of Libertarian Party funds than a violent attack on one of them.

• California LP gubernatorial candidate Gary Copeland got a lot of publicity by spitting on Brian Whitman, a talk- show host who had cut off Copeland’s.microphone and denounced Copeland as a “lunatic.”

• The Montana LP candidate for the U.S. Senate got extensive coverage for his revelation that his skin had permanently turned blue because he had for several years drunk a solution of alloidal silver, hoping to ward off diseases and to prepare himself for shortages of antibiotics at Y2K.

• The North Carolina LP got publicity when James Carville got a copy of its “Ladies of Liberty” pinup calendar and invited one of its models, a candidate for the state legislature, to appear on CNN’s Crossfire. There, Carville slobbered over the candidate, and Tucker Carlson was shocked.

• The LP candidate for governor of Wisconsin got publicity for, of all things, running an excellent campaign and raising a lot of important issues. He was featured in favorable articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post, places where libertarians seldom get good press.

The Libertarian Party fielded a record 219 candidates for the U.S. House, 23 candidates for the senate and 21 candidates for governor. As usual, all of them lost. The highest vote percentage attained by any candidate in these elections was that of congressional candidate Robert Murphy, who got 24.4% of the vote in Oklahoma’s 3rd district. The formula for getting this impressive vote? Murphy was on the ballot as an “Independent,” not as a Libertarian. He faced only one major party opponent. And, according to his campaign website, he did not campaign “because he is a primary caregiver for a dear friend who is suffering from bone cancer.”

Of those Libertarian candidates who faced opponents from both major parties, the best performance by a wide margin was that of Ed Thompson, who got 10.5% of the vote for governor in Wisconsin. In addition to facing opposition from both major parties, Thompson also faced another fringe party candidate. As a rule, a second fringe party candidate cuts the LP vote about in half. Another problem was that Thompson appeared with the Libertarian Party label; Libertarians who run as independents (such as Robert Murphy) usually do about twice as well as those who run with the LP label. These two factors are often overlooked by people who analyze LP returns, but Thompson would almost certainly have done better still if he had, for instance, shed the LP name.

In this election, the LP ran 137 candidates on the LP ticket against opponents from both major parties but without other fringe party opposition. Those LP candidates received, on average, 2.73% of the vote. Fifty LP candidates faced opposition from both major parties and from one or more other third-party candidates. These LP candidates, on average, received just 1.34% of the vote. This strongly suggests that more than half the votes that LP candidates receive come from people who are more interested in voting against both major party candidates than in supporting a Libertarian candidate.

The tendency holds when the LP candidate faces just one major party: in these races, LP candidates averaged 11.71%of the vote when they were the only third-party candidates on the ballot; when there was another third party candidate, the LP candidates averaged just 6.67%. Libertarians running as independents did much better than libertarians running as Libertarians. There were 24 LP candidates who ran as “Independents”; they received an average of 4.19% of the vote. There were 195 candidates who ran with the “Libertarian” label; they received an average of 3.30%: But the effect of running as an Independent instead of a Libertarian is probably substantially greater than these figures indicate, since the “Independent” libertarians all ran in areas where Libertarians traditionally do badly: all were in New Jersey or in states that were part of the old Confederacy.

The LP ran a total of 21 candidates for the Senate. Those facing opposition from both major parties got an average of 1.5% of the vote; those with only one major party opponent got an average of 13.9% of the vote. The LP ran a total of 23 gubernatorial candidates, all of whom faced opposition from both major parties. Aside from Thompson in Wisconsin, the best performance was that of Tom Cox, who attained 4.6% of the vote in Oregon. The average vote that LP gubernatorial candidates received was 1.9%; with Thompson excluded, it was 1.5% – virtually the same share of votes that Libertarians got in races for the Senate against two-party opposition. In sum, Thompson’s campaign stood head and shoulders above all other LP campaigns, despite the fact that it got precious little help from the national party and was dreadfully underfunded.

The LP ran thousands of other candidates for offices, but won a grand total of three partisan elections. Two of the victors were longtime Republican incumbents who had switched parties in San Miguel County, Colo. (population 6,971): Bob Dempsey, coroner, and Bill Masters, sheriff, who has earned considerable attention by calling for drug legalization. Masters had no opposition; Dempsey defeated a for-

More than half the votes that LP candidates receive come from people who are more interested in voting against both major party candidates than in supporting a Libertarian candidate.

 

mer staffer. The only other partisan LP candidate to win an election was Edward A. Dilts, elected without opposition to the Advisory Board of Needham Township (population 4,682), Johnson County, Ind. (LP News erroneously reported that Dilts had been elected to the Township Board.) LP members won elections to 25 non-partisan positions in local government. These offices included the boards of three community services districts, two health care districts, two recreation and parks districts, three school districts, a harbor district, two sanitary districts, and a fire district. In addition, LP members won two races for city council, one for justice of the peace, and one for soil and water conservation supervisor. Party candidates captured six local advisory board seats without opposition and without their names appearing on the ballot. In all, there was one partisan victory in a contested election, two partisan victories in uncontested elections, 25 victories in local non-partisan races, and six “victories” in uncontested races that were not voted on by the public.

To outside observers, this list of victories seemed pretty paltry for a party that has spent 30 years and millions of dollars. Indeed, the party showed considerably less success than it did 20 years ago, when it elected three members to state legislatures. The day after the election, LP News reported that the party’s “members were buoyed by a flurry of local wins.” The discussion among LP activists on the Internet, however, has been decidedly unbuoyant, and the News did not report how it discovered that members were “buoyed” by the election. The party’s national political director, Ron Crickenberger, said that the party”moved forward this year, albeit slowly…. In one sense we did better than the Democrats. They have fewer elected officials coming out of the election – we will have a few more.” Of course, in another sense, it might possibly be said, the Democrats did better: they won tens of thousands of contested partisan elections, many of them to important posi-

The LP ran thousands of candidates for offices, but won only one contested partisan election: a longtime Republican incumbent who had switched party affiliation in San Miguel County, Colo. (population 6,971) was re-elected coroner.

 

tions, while the LP won a race for coroner in a rural county in Colorado.

Besides gaining national attention five times prior to the election, LP campaigns made the national news twice after- ward.

• LP campaigns were widely blamed for costing Republicans several close elections, most notably the Senate seat in South Dakota, where Libertarian Kurt Evans got 3,071 votes in an election that Democrat incumbent Tim Johnson won by just 527 votes. If the GOP candidate John Thune had taken just 1,800 of those 3,071 votes, or 58.6%, Thune would have won. And since Libertarian views are generally closer·to those of Republicans than Democrats, if Evans hadn’t been on the ballot, it’s likely that more than 58.6% of those who voted for him would have voted for the Democrat incumbent. (This is a superficially sound argument, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. See “LP: Killer of Republicans?” below)

• The second national news story was a clearly unfortunate one. Two weeks after the election, neighbors of Idaho’s LP gubernatorial candidate Daniel Adams called the police to report hearing gunshots. Police discovered that Adams was wanted for a probation violation in Ada City, and went to the scene. When they arrived, they found Adams confrontational and suspected he intended to “commit suicide by cop,” Le., attack the police in the hope of being shot. “We won’t play that game,” Captain Leroy Cordes of the Payette County sheriff’s office told me. Police used a non-lethal Taser in an attempt to subdue Adams, Cordes said, and he lunged at them with a saber. He was subdued and arrested for battery. Suddenly the Blue Man and the Spitter didn’t seem like the LP’s saddest candidates after all.

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