Friday, April 14, 2006

First Look 2008: Michael Badnarik

[Note: This is one in a series of articles about likely or prospective 2008 Libertarian Party presidential candidates]

I thought about waiting until November to weigh in on Michael Badnarik's prospects as a potential 2008 presidential nominee -- but if I'm going to do a "first look" series, it seems like it would be cheating to stretch it out until after an event as significant as the 2006 congressional elections. I'm going to have to go out on the limb here, make some (at least tentative) predictions, and live with being right or wrong in those predictions.

If Michael Badnarik is elected to the US House of Representatives from Texas's 10th district this November, his nomination as the LP's 2008 presidential candidate is virtually assured ... if he decides to seek it. Whether he'd so decide is an open question. As the nation's first Libertarian congresscritter, he might choose to concentrate on retaining his seat.

Here's the risky prediction part: Badnarik won't win his congressional race.

With respect to most LP congressional candidates, that wouldn't be a risky prediction at all. The party's record is perfect in that respect: Libertarians are zero for X, where X is the number of campaigns for election to Congress on our ballot line over the last 35 years.

Michael Badnarik, however, is not most LP congressional candidates.

Most LP congressional candidates haven't raised $200,000 for their campaigns before Memorial Day. Most LP congressional candidates haven't raised more than one of their two "major party" opponents. As a matter of fact, most LP congressional candidates haven't raised one tenth as much as Badnarik already has by Election Day. Most LP congressional candidates don't have billboards in high-traffic areas. Most LP congressional candidates don't have offices and full-time staff. And most LP congressional candidates haven't gone to a national convention broke, in third place, with a campaign staff consisting of two volunteers, and walked out of that convention with a presidential nomination.

If any Libertarian can win election to the US House of Representatives this year, it's Michael Badnarik (so far, the word is that Wisconsin's Ed Thompson won't be running, or I'd add him to the list right above Badnarik). But, barring a Thompson run, I don't think that any Libertarian can win a congressional race this year. I'll be ecstatic if Badnarik proves me wrong -- it won't be the first time.

Based on my prediction, Badnarik would be seeking the LP's nomination on the basis of a losing, but probably very credible -- in the 20%+ range -- performance in the congressional race. That could play either way: His performance could push him up, or the amount of money Libertarians contributed for a win they expected and didn't get could push him down.

Additionally, his prior presidential nomination could be a plus or a minus:

- The LP has only nominated the same candidate twice, once (Harry Browne in 1996 and 2000), and he received fewer votes the second time around.

- On the other hand, Badnarik proved in 2004 that he could assemble a professional campaign organization (disclosure: I was part of that organization from August thru November 2004), go from zero to a million bucks, and turn in a mid-range (relative to prior LP candidates) electoral performance in five months. For the sake of comparison, Ed Clark in 1980 had 14-15 months to campaign as the nominee and (in inflation-adjusted dollars) eight times as much money as Badnarik, but received only a little more than as twice as many votes. Ron Paul in 1988 had 14-15 months to campaign as the nominee and (once again, adjusted for inflation) four times as much money, and outpolled Badnarik by fewer than 50,000 votes. Add to that the fact that Clark and Paul ran in "blowout" elections where the "wasted vote" was not a factor, while Badnarik's election was perceived as very, very tight, and Badnarik comes out looking pretty damn good.

The only thing that Badnarik really has going against him is ... his ideas.

Despite his best efforts to tell them what he thought -- the man drove 20,000 miles, attended virtually every LP event in the US in 2003 and 2004, taught a class on the US Constitution to LP audiences, and even wrote a book -- many delegates to the LP's 2004 national convention weren't familiar with his ... well, unorthodox, even by libertarian standards ... views on the income tax, drivers' licenses and such until after they'd nominated him. That was their fault and not his, of course, but quite a few delegates were right wroth at having deceived themselves, and blamed Badnarik for not doing more to prevent them from doing so.

Many of those same people will be delegates in 2008. Many of them will still hold a grudge. And Badnarik's ideas will be discussed rather than ignored. As a matter of fact, another declared candidate for the nomination, George Phillies, has already put them into play.

Badnarik makes arguments in his book that the payment of federal income taxes may not be required by the Internal Revenue Code, that the 16th Amendment may not have been ratified, that drivers' licenses aren't required for people who become "actual owners" of their cars by acquiring a "Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin," etc. These are not libertarian views per se -- they are constitutionalist ideas of a particular stripe. They are not necessarily incompatible with libertarianism, but neither are they essential to it, and they should therefore be judged by LP members on the basis of their political utility. In 2004, Badnarik and his campaign were able to stay resolutely "on message," hitting core issues in ways which reflected well on the LP. We can't count on that luxury in 2008, and must take into consideration the possibility that Badnarik will be forced to defend himself on these questions if he is the nominee.

I'm not going to argue the validity of Badnarik's views. I'm not even going to speculate as to what percentage of the population might hold them. What I will state is that I believe that the percentage of the population which holds them and would support a candidate who stands for them is much smaller than the percentage of the population which would regard them as crazy enough to instantly discredit any candidate who stood for them; and that many of the latter group are Americans who might otherwise be inclined to consider voting Libertarian. If publicized -- and they would be publicized the instant Badnarik appeared to be a factor in the election's outcome -- the identification of those views with the LP would reverberate. It would affect the prospects of other Libertarian candidates, and the effect would persist beyond the single election cycle. This is a matter which we ignore at our peril.

I have little doubt that Badnarik could raise much more money, campaign as the likely LP candidate for much longer, have an effective campaign organization in place earlier, and so forth, than last time around. The down side to that is that if he threatens to be a bigger factor in the general election (and I firmly believe that he would -- he is tireless and dedicated and downright effective), his views will receive more, and more negative attention -- and the LP needs to decide whether or not it is willing to be seen as standing behind those views.

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