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In Its Heterodox Media Star, an Identity Crisis for Libertarian Party

Root-tea-party.jpg
Root-tea-party.jpg

Wayne Allyn Root (official headshot) and a demonstrator at the 9/12 Tea Party rally last year (Photo by Alexander Zaitchik)

Bob Barr’s 2008 nomination as the Libertarian Party candidate for the presidency triggered something of an existential crisis for the nation’s largest third party. The former Georgia congressman was a strange new face for a group that prides itself on philosophical consistency and allegiance to first principles. Before his dramatic Libertarian conversion in 2007, Barr was known for strong un-Libertarian positions on issues from gay marriage to the drug war.

[Congress1] “There has been a drift toward the conservative and reformist end of the spectrum for a couple of years now,” one unhappy Libertarian delegate told me at the party’s 2008 national convention in Denver. “The nomination of Bob Barr is the culmination of that.”

After failing to garner much attention in the 2008 election (or many votes — he received just over 500,000 nationwide), Barr has faded from the public view. Now, it is Barr’s 2008 vice presidential candidate and fellow recent convert, Wayne Allyn Root, who has emerged as the Libertarian Party’s highest-profile spokesman — and, say some of his fellow Libertarians, its biggest public relations headache.

Since the rise of the Tea Party groups last year, the anti-tax, anti-debt insurgency they represent has generally been understood to signify a “plague on both your houses” turn among disaffected Republicans. The Tea Partiers and their leaders, angry at both the Bush deficits and the Obama stimulus, have encouraged this reading by self-identifying not with the GOP, but with a vague and non-aligned “libertarianism.”

Yet on a number of issues — particularly relating to foreign policy — Tea Partiers have hewed more closely to traditional Republican views than to libertarianism. Now, with the election of Root, a former Vegas odds-maker who describes himself as a “Reagan Libertarian,” to its national board, the Libertarian Party appears to be embracing this confusion. For Root, the Tea Party scene is a consistent and logical extension of Libertarian politics as he understands them. There should be, he believes, little or no light between the two.

“The Tea Party is the perfect model for the future success of the Libertarian Party,” Root told TWI. “The Tea Party has stuck with complete focus and discipline on the issues where the LP wins. Instead of focusing on controversial, divisive or radical issues that turn off mainstream American voters, my goal is to attract the kind of mainstream, moderate, common-sense voters that win elections [and] that the Libertarian Party has been missing or turning off for 39 years: mothers, grandmothers, Christians, veterans, conservatives, disgruntled Republicans, blue-collar Blue Dog Democrats and small-business owners.”

The problem, say many of Root’s more veteran Libertarian colleagues, is that Root is so ready to start winning elections with ex-Republican voters that he has not had time to complete his own libertarian education and conversion, and thus is in no position to represent the party, let alone teach new converts.

“Wayne is still a Republican,” said R. Lee Wrights, vice chair of the Libertarian Party from 2004 to 2006. “Whatever you want to call it. He’ll use whatever name is most fashionable. In his latest book, he actually recommends expanding Congress and increasing their salaries. We’re a party that’s been screaming for smaller government for 40 years — and he wants to expand it? Libertarians are very good at giving people a chance to learn the ropes and seeing what they’re about, but in Root’s case, I’m not optimistic.”

Like Barr, Root joined the party in late 2007. At last month’s party convention in St. Louis, he was elected to the National Committee after failing in an audacious (and expensive) bid to become National Chair.

But most people just know him from television. Since joining the party, Root has become a one-man self-promotional machine, with regular appearances on an array of Fox News and talk radio programs, on which he can be routinely seen and heard discussing any number of political and personal issues — from the need to slash the welfare state to his entrepreneurial success to his daughter’s fencing scholarship.

Many veteran Libertarians have watched in dismay as Root works the media circuit, where, they argue, he often talks more about himself than the values and principles of the Libertarian Party. And a survey of Root’s media appearances and published work bears out claims that he is more interested in promoting Wayne Root than his adopted political party, whose views he does not appear to have embraced entirely.

“Long-term party members are concerned that Wayne came in from the conservative movement, and he’s still there to a large extent,” said Mary Ruwart, a veteran Party activist and former contender for the Libertarian vice-presidential nomination. “If you read his book, ‘The Conscience of a Libertarian,’ you quickly realize it should have been called ‘The Conscience of Another Conservative.’”

“He has considerable media access, which is new for us,” conceded Ruwart. “But there’s no indication that this access is bringing us members. He usually presents his views as his own views, as opposed to Libertarian views. When I campaign, I educate people by explaining our principles. This is not something that Wayne does.”

“In some ways Wayne Root is eerily similar to Glenn Beck,” said David Nolan, a founding member of the Libertarian Party and its Senate candidate in Arizona. “They are both good at selling themselves.”

“Wayne is a bright, energetic guy,” Nolan added, “but I found it interesting that when he chose to address a Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nev., it was a Tea Party Express event, sponsored by Republicans. Wayne lent his presence to that event and never uttered a peep about the Libertarian Party. He stood there hand-in-glove with Sarah Palin and Dick Armey.”

Not long ago, Root supported the drug war and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — heterodox positions for a libertarian. As recently as 2007, he advocated for a McCain-Lieberman presidential ticket. His Root for America “Libertarian Website” continues to bang the decidedly un-Libertarian drum of strong right-or-wrong support for Israel, even though the Libertarian platform opposes “entangling alliances” with other governments.

“Wayne only likes positions when polls show a majority are already in favor of it,” said a longtime Libertarian activist and candidate. “It took a long time to convince him that as a Libertarian he couldn’t support the wars full-throttle. He just doesn’t get it.”

Wrights, the former Party vice chair, said that he first realized the party “had a problem on its hands” when he heard Root refer to himself a “Reagan Libertarian.” In response, Wrights penned an essay entitled “What Is a Reagan Libertarian?” The question was meant to be rhetorical.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘Reagan Libertarian,’” agreed Nolan. “Wayne just made that up after he saw a poll a few months ago where reaction to ‘Reagan’ got the strongest positive response. But Reagan was not at all a Libertarian. This is very basic stuff.”

Root’s admiration for the budget-ballooning Ronald Reagan is not stopping him from pursuing grandiose dreams under the Libertarian banner. Wherever he goes, Root bursts with the ambition to become president. In August 2009, he laid out his ten-year game plan to Reason editor Matt Welch. “I want to be the Ross Perot of 2012,” Root said. “Then I want to have a credible chance in 2016 or 2020.”

In the meantime, he views his success garnering media attention as validation of his “big tent” Libertarian politics.

“If I’m not on the right track,” said Root when asked about his Libertarian critics, “how can you explain Fox News, a conservative TV network, giving TV shows to Glenn Beck, Jon Stossel and Judge Andrew Napolitano — all strong libertarian thinkers? How can you explain the success of Ron Paul, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle? How can you explain [my coming] out of nowhere to become the 2008 Libertarian Party Vice Presidential nominee, and now becoming an overnight media sensation on Fox News, Fox Business, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC — doing 20 to 30 radio interviews a week across the country?”

Root’s defenders within the party argue that aggressive marketing is just what the Party needs. Mark Hinkle, who beat Root out for the position of National Chair, thinks Libertarians could benefit from Root’s salesman instincts and experience.

“Early on, the party was made up largely of computer geeks and engineers, and there is still some of that,” said Hinkle. “I know some members think Wayne is over the top, but there needs to be a voice that is market- and sales-oriented. For people who believe very strongly in free market, we Libertarians are not always market savvy. I would like to see Wayne teach some of our more articulate and presentable candidates better sales techniques. It’s great to be a radical libertarian, but you need to be able to sell it or you’re just talking in the wind.”

Great salesman or not, there remains widespread suspicion of Roots’ politics and motivations.

“Because Root kind of keeps his foot in both camps, there is a lot of criticism in the Party, and the broader libertarian movement,” said Nolan. “People are asking, ‘Who is this guy?’ Wayne’s loosy-goosy, undefined libertarianism sits very well with the Fox News and Sarah Palin crowd, but there is a great deal of concern among longtime activists and strategists about Wayne’s grasp on the philosophy.”

“If you run around shooting your mouth off as Wayne Root, Private Citizen, that’s fine,” said Nolan. “But if you are introducing yourself as the former vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, then what comes out of your mouth better be pretty close to the party position. Otherwise, what you are committing is fraud.”

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