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With more accuracy than many party-switchers, Barr can make the familiar claim that he didn't leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left him.
For small-government conservatives, the GOP, in cravenly following the Bush administration, has led the country into a waking nightmare. In an interview, Barr ticks off the issues that concern him now – and it's not welfare mothers or Wiccans. He's outraged that air travelers might be subjected to intrusive, full-body X-rays. He's infuriated with Republican lawmakers and Bush-appointed judges who trash the notion of separation of powers with their "knee-jerk deference" to the administration. He's fed up with a Congress that passes one pork-stuffed budget after another, with no thought of controlling spending or shrinking government.
"Bob created and defined a personality for himself in Congress, which is pretty hard to do," says Chuck Clay, a former state legislator and onetime state GOP chairman who took over Barr's law partnership when he was named U.S. attorney. "But now that he's not in office, he's been able to focus on truly important issues rather than the politics."
His tipping point can be summed up with two words: Patriot Act. He joined the ranks of ex-Republicans largely in response to the expansion of government power that's occurred since 9/11 and that came at the expense of our civil liberties and the rule of law. Spurned by his own party in the 2002 elections, he also felt betrayed by an administration that spied illegally on American citizens after assuring Congress it would only use its enhanced surveillance powers on terrorist groups.
Quoting the novelist and capitalist Ayn Rand, Barr says individual privacy is the "essence of civilization," the fundamental underpinning of freedom.
"There has been such a dramatic increase in government power that there's virtually no more privacy left," he says.
Where Barr's congressional antics once brought him notoriety, his advocacy for the cause of civil liberty has earned him gravitas. Not long after losing his final re-election bid in 2002, he announced he'd begin consulting on privacy issues with the American Civil Liberties Union, a group pilloried – at least publicly – by most Republicans. While still in Congress, Barr had found himself siding with the ACLU against proposals for a national ID card and the infamous TIPS citizen-snitch program.
As a Creative Loafing columnist from 2003 to 2005, then writing opinion pieces for the AJC, Barr explained thoughtfully and persuasively why the rule of habeas corpus must be observed even for terrorists; why "sneak-and-peek" warrants should be illegal; why Congress shouldn't waste its time investigating steroid use; and how Republicans had become the party of big government and wanton spending.
He even began a public courtship with the Libertarian Party in the pages of CL, writing in 2004 about speaking at a party event: "On many of the issues comprising its platform, the Libertarian Party of Georgia has staked out a position strikingly in accord with what I perceive to be positions favored by mainstream Georgians." Later that year, he endorsed Libertarian presidential nominee Michael Badnarik and, in 2006, he formally joined the party.
Former associates say Barr's core beliefs and political convictions have actually changed very little. He's always harbored a Reaganesque distrust of government and has been a passionate supporter of the Second Amendment. But Barr seems to have left behind some of his more incendiary right-wing convictions, such as his zealous opposition to gay marriage. For several years now, he's advocated a partial repeal of his Defense of Marriage Act, arguing that each state should be allowed to decide the issue for itself.
His most visible about-face has been in the area of drug legalization. Once one of the country's most vocal proponents of the War on Drugs, Barr has since called for marijuana decriminalization and even lobbied for the reform of drug laws on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project. While Libertarians had worked to defeat him in 2002 because of his anti-drug stance, party members seem to trust in his conversion.
If Barr still has a reactionary streak or a taste for political drama, it doesn't come across in conversation. Instead, he seems reasonable and serious – whether discussing immigration policy, tax plans or how to end the war in Iraq. "Bob is incredibly learned, well-read and scholarly," says former staffer Watson. "He's always thinking as a lawyer, with an eye toward the facts."
That ability to talk specifics regarding complex policy issues has friend and foe agreeing that if any third-party candidate has the rhetorical skill to make waves and shift votes in a televised presidential debate, it would be Bob Barr.
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