Bob Barr, former congressman and now Libertarian candidate for president, walked up to me, with WCPN host Dan Moulthrop at his side. Moulthrop shook my hand. "Welcome to Fringe Fest '08," he said.
I turned to Barr, who kept a poker face. "Good seeing ya," he said, offering his hand. I guess he's gotten used to being called fringe this year.
Cleveland's City Club hosted a third party candidates' presidential debate about the economy this Thursday. Appearing were Ralph Nader, who's at about 2.3 percent in the polls; Barr, who's at about 1.5 percent; and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin, a Baptist minister, talk show host and columnist whom the pollsters don't even ask about.
The City Club room wasn't as packed as it was for the Jones-Sutherland or Mason-Butler debates. This one was organized and announced on very short notice. But several dozen people attended, so the room was pretty close to full.
You count on third-party candidates to bring up issues the major parties aren't touching. Nader, Barr, and Baldwin did that -- and also taught a lesson in how the hard-left, libertarian right, hard-right can agree on challenges to both Democrats and Republicans.
All three are against the financial bailout and think the government should prosecute Wall Street firms and banks for fraud instead. ("Tarring and feathering," Baldwin suggested, "might even be appropriate.") They all want to pull the United States out of international trade agreements, from NAFTA to the WTO (though Barr, a free-trader, says he's all for open trade and lowering tariffs, but against international organizations that can overrule American laws). All are against the war in Iraq and want our troops out (probably much faster than Obama would take them out). Barr, who regrets his 2002 vote for the Patriot Act, warned the Bush Administration had implemented a "tremendous unbridled growth of government power, and as a result, erosion of our civil liberties." Nader agreed.
The agreement was so striking that one audience member suggested they "combine forces" and field one candidate. This led them to politely point out their differences. "I believe in strong regulatory agencies, and single-payer health care," said Nader, who said thousands of Americans die each year because they don't have health insurance. Baldwin explained he is strongly pro-life and pro-gun rights.
Illegal immigration also showed their differences. Baldwin wants to shut the borders and crack down on illegal immigrants. Barr wants to open the borders to anyone who wants to cross, including workers, but screen travelers carefully to make sure they aren't a terrorist threat. Nader emphasized how migrant workers are exploited; he said U.S. policies toward Latin America hurt economies there and displace workers, that a crackdown should focus on employers, not migrants; and that migrant workers have to have the same rights as Americans, or else U.S. labor standard will erode.
One young questioner asked if participating in Social Security and Medicare should be voluntary. Yes, Barr and Baldwin said. Social Security, Barr said, is an "immoral program, whereby government takes, by threat of force, money from individuals. No, answered Nader. "What would Americans who are elderly be doing now," with retirement accounts' values dropping with the stock market, "if not for Social Security?" He launched into a passionate defense of "a sense of community" in society and argued that we, like the social democrats of Western Europe, should use government to create universal health care, "decent wages," paid maternity leave, sick leave, and day care.
(WCPN has some audio clips from the debate. C-SPAN taped the debate and is replaying it, but their online link doesn't seem to work, so here's a fuzzy version on Google Videos. The New Yorker recently ran an interesting profile of Barr.)