IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
The Republicans babble about small government, even as pork drips from their jowls. Color the Libertarian Party a deep shade of unimpressed:
The Libertarians' platform calls for almost all taxes to be eliminated. Period!
Democrats squeak as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales snips off civil liberties like a mohel in a room of quintuplet boys. Libertarians swagger into the issue like matadors: They support drug legalization, firearms rights, assisted suicide and an end to NSA wiretapping. Freedom is their watchword.
With the Libertarian Party, a 35-year-old outlaw of American politics' Wild West fringe, holding its biennial national convention in Portland this weekend, citizens of this tax-loving, gun-hating People's Republic could be forgiven for thinking between 600 and 700 aliens have invaded. (And they're all reading The Fountainhead!)
Look closer, however, and you find a vibrant, if small (just 200,000 members nationally and about 16,000 in Oregon), movement feeling bullish these days. The Libertarian Party opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, because they philosophically object to almost all aggression. And with Democrats unable to rein in GOP excess, some lefties might look twice at a party that insists civil rights comes first.
So in case you run into someone speechifying downtown, here's a primer on our weekend guests:
WHO ARE THESE GUYS? The Libertarian Party got its start in a Denver living room in 1971, founded by a half-dozen free-thinking conservatives pissed off by noted left-wing extremist Richard Nixon. (In '72, the party hit its presidential high-water mark when one of Nixon's 521 Electoral College voters bolted to cast a lonely ballot for the Libs.)
The Libertarians love individual rights and the free market, and distrust government to the max. That ethos can breed some tin-hatted wackiness. An '02 Senate candidate in Montana, for instance, famously turned blue because he'd consumed a bunch of, um, silver to prepare for the Y2K "crisis."
But all told, the Libertarians boast an uncompromising set of principles not easily slotted into left or right. Their foreign policy is staunchly isolationist, but they favor wide-open immigration. They would also eliminate welfare for immigrants, not to mention everyone else. Even you, Halliburton.
And if nothing else, they liven up elections.
"We're known for taxes, property rights and guns," says Richard Burke, executive director of Oregon's Libertarian Party. "Now we can showcase our stands for reasonable foreign policy and civil liberties."
DO THEY EVER WIN? Rarely. The party's national candidates are perennial trivia questions (in 2004, Michael Badnarik's Lib presidential ticket attracted under 400,000 votes, or 0.3 percent).
Few Libertarians have ever been asked to fill a pothole, let alone stop al Qaeda, but the party boasts scattered state and local officeholders. Burke, for example, points to his own tenure on the Tualatin Valley Water District Board as proof that Libertarians can get the job done.
They do affect elections. In 2002, Libertarian Tom Cox got 57,000-plus votes in Oregon's gubernatorial race—enough, some think, to torpedo Republican Kevin Mannix.
"The coverage we get in Oregon races gets better and better," Burke says. "We're now viewed as having something to say that newspapers expect the other candidates to respond to."
WHAT'S UP WITH THIS CONVENTION? In this mid-term election year, the Libs won't be picking their Don Quixote for the next presidential cycle, though Burke expects early campaigning for that role behind the scenes.
But the speakers' list offers eclectic fare.
Ex-Georgia congressman Bob Barr, a firebrand Republican possibly best known for hounding President Clinton on the impeachment trail and licking whipped cream off two women's chests in a 1992 leukemia fundraiser, is likely to talk guns and privacy rights. Ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic will kick down some of the same populist, reformist wisdom that filled his recent book Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy.
And the Libs will spar plenty over their platform. Burke says that policy debate has matured.
"The platform used to say, 'We want to abolish the fraudulent Ponzi scheme of Social Security,'" Burke says. "Now it says something like, 'We want to fix the financially unviable system of Social Security.' We used to talk about 'drug legalization' instead of 'ending the failed drug war.'"
As for why they're meeting in Portland, Burke says Oregon's Libs won the convention by showing political chops in lobbying the state Legislature, affecting elections and working on ballot initiatives.
WHAT KEEPS THEM GOING? Libertarians are the happy—nerdy, but happy—warriors of American politics. Unlike almost everyone else, they always get to say what they mean.
"A lot of conservatives and liberals would love to do what we do," Burke says. "A lot of people look at us with contemptuous but envious eyes."
The Libertarian National Convention takes place Saturday-Sunday, July 1-2, at the Hilton Executive Tower. The public is welcome. A full schedule can be found at www.LPconvention.org.