Wayne Allyn Root says he’s the Muhammad Ali of the Libertarian Party — he may talk big, but he can back it up in the ring.
Speaking to me before a forum for Libertarian presidential candidates hosted by Reason magazine at its Washington, D.C. headquarters, the Las Vegas odds maker shared his plan not only for capturing the party’s nomination at this weekend’s convention, but for winning the presidency.
Root isn’t delusional, Root said — he doesn’t expect to win it all this year. However, he claims he can appeal to the millions of online poker players who were fed up with the ban passed by the Republican Congress in 2006. Combined with the fact that he can attract home-schoolers as a home-schooling father himself and small-business owners as a businessman, Root projects he can win four million votes this year. Next election cycle, he’ll build up to Ross Perot type numbers, and by 2020, he’ll capture the White House.
On Tuesday, however, he had to survive the grilling of moderator Dave Weigel, the associate editor of Reason. Root shared the floor with former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, and former Alaskan senator and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Gravel — three of 14 candidates running in the party’s wild nomination contest.
“I spent my entire adult life on television,” said Root in his opening pitch. “I like to think I’m a Ronald Reagan for the Libertarian Party.”
DESPITE ROOT’S REAGAN reference, the politician who was invoked most by the Libertarian candidates was Ron Paul.
“We are poised for a new birth of freedom,” Barr, the frontrunner, declared. “Inside the heart of every American beats the heart of a libertarian, and what we need to do is show the American people that that is mainstream. Ron Paul has shown us the way, but we need to build far beyond that.”
Gravel, a longtime liberal, has the steepest hill to climb to prove he belongs in the party. He huffed that he was prevented from participating in the later Democratic debates this cycle because he was “too libertarian.”
Not having much in the way of small government bona fides, he focused on harsh anti-war rhetoric and generic bromides about how “the American people sense that something is really wrong in Washington” and need “a party that stands for liberty and freedom.”
Weigel had each of the candidates answer for some of their deviations from Libertarian orthodoxy.
Barr explained why his political action committee has donated money to Republicans and a Democrat by saying that he has cooperated with a number of groups that have fought for one aspect of freedom, a list as diverse as the ACLU, the NRA, the American Conservative Union, and Americans for Tax Reform.
Barr said he would always “search for a commonality of interest to increase freedom” and had no problem donating to politicians, of any party label, who took stands for liberty on important issues.
Gravel was forced to justify his statements criticizing the Founding Fathers for making a crucial error in writing the U.S. Constitution.
“One of the real damages they did is they denied people the procedures to be able to make laws and amend the Constitution,” Gravel grumbled, describing the undemocratic nature of the document. “Freedom is participating in power. The central power of a democracy is making laws. We don’t make laws at the federal level in this country. We really don’t have freedom.”
He referred the audience to his book, Citizen Power, and argued that “representative government is broken” and proposed that Americans be allowed to “vote on all things that affect their lives.”
Root, meanwhile, claimed the award for the greatest show of candor by a presidential candidate in a debate when he was asked to explain his donation to Joe Lieberman, whose combination of hawkish foreign policy and big government domestic views make him anathema to libertarians.
“I’m a businessman above all else,” he boasted unapologetically. “About two years ago, a very good friend of mine gave me $1 million for my business, and he was bundling checks for Joe Lieberman, and said, ‘By the way, would you make an investment in Joe Lieberman’s campaign?’ And I wrote a $1,000 check as a sign of friendship for someone who gave my business $1 million.”
ROOT SCORED SOME POINTS with the crowd when he declared the fight for school choice “the civil rights issue of our time” and railed against the Republican Party’s intrusion into people’s bedrooms on abortion, gay rights, online gambling, and medical marijuana. But he elicited boos when he called for sealing the border until the nation could figure out what to do with immigrants who were already here, given the existence of the welfare state.
Gravel won his most applause of the night by retorting, “The people I’ve met, the immigrants, they don’t come here for welfare. They come here to work.”
Barr did his best to argue that one of the legitimate roles of government was “to protect the sovereignty of the nation” and he called for all immigrants to undergo a basic background check, a test for communicable diseases, and to show identification.
On foreign policy, the candidates were asked whether they thought any wars since 1991 were justified.
Root, who said he used to support a hawkish foreign policy, but came to realize it was incompatible with a small government, said he only supported the first Gulf War, to which Gravel responded that the U.S. could have removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait diplomatically. The only war he supported in the 20th century was World War II, but he said it was only made necessary by World War I.
During the debate, Barr, who voted for the Iraq War, said he didn’t think any intervention since 1991 was justified. But pressed by TAS contributor John Tabin after the event, he said he supported U.S. action in Afghanistan.
No doubt to the disappointment of some libertarians, all three candidates took a stand against kiddie porn.
AFTERWARDS, I ASKED Gravel to discuss his views on health care. He said I could find his proposal in his book, before cautioning, “But my health-care plan isn’t going to pass Congress. Nor is any other. There’s no money.”
He said he would “empower the American people so they could make a decision” about what health-care system they want.
“Do you think it’s the government’s role to give people health care?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know who else could give people health care,” Gravel said. “Government is like a tool, a tool for our collective activity.” He described government as being like a hammer, which could be used when we need it, put aside, but also has the power to kill if not reined in.
“Do you think people have a right to health care?” I followed up.
“Yes, I think people have a right to a sound economy, to health care, and to education,” he insisted. “Yes they do, because they have a right to freedom. You can’t have freedom unless you have the other three. How are you going to be free if you have no money? You’re not free — you’re just a drunk in the street. How are you going to be free if you’re sick? You’re sick like a jerk. How are you going to be free if you’re dumb? You’re too dumb to participate in freedom. Freedom means education. Freedom means health care. Freedom means a sound economy.”
He acknowledged that he was old enough to know that he doesn’t have all the answers, which is why he would leave it to the people.
“But what happens when 300 million different voices and people disagree with each other?” I asked him.
“You rule by majority,” Gravel said.
“Well, what if the minority doesn’t want to pay for someone else’s health care?”
“Go to another country,” he said.