Libertarian candidates for public office often say, “A no-compromise approach may be fine for a think tank, but it has no place in a political campaign. We have to be practical. We can’t turn voters into libertarians overnight. We need to compromise and conceal our positions if we are to have any chance of electoral success.”
But actually, the situation is the exact opposite. Compromise and concealment are the surefire way to achieve defeat and disgrace for libertarian political candidates. An honest, forthright, competent, and confident presentation of libertarian principles holds the only chance for electoral success.
Consider the following hypothetical. A libertarian candidate decides that ending the war on drugs and abolishing public schooling are libertarian positions that are simply too radical to present to the voters. So, the candidate decides to conceal these positions until . . . well, until sometime after he’s elected. He decides to make standard Republican claptrap the centerpiece of his campaign: “Reduce regulations! Reduce taxes! Reduce spending! Downsize government! Do it now!”
The libertarian starts rising in the polls. Two weeks before the election, he’s hit 20 percent in the polls and accepts an invitation to speak at a candidates’ forum at a local Rotarian meeting. The libertarian delivers a resounding speech calling for his conservative claptrap. Then, his Republican opponent addresses the audience and says:
“In the last few weeks, our libertarian opponent has risen quite high in the polls with his positions on so-called ‘pocketbook issues.’ Now let me tell you what he hasn’t told you — and what he has deliberately kept secret from you during this entire campaign. He believes all drugs should be legalized. If you doubt what I say, take a look at his party platform. That’s right — drugs all over the streets. Is this what you want for your community? Can you trust a person who keeps such an important position secret? At least you know where Republicans stand, because we’ll tell you. But you’ll never know where the libertarian stands, because he keeps his positions secret. Our libertarian friend just can’t be trusted.”
His Democrat opponent stands up and says:
“What our libertarian friend also hasn’t told you is that he favors abolishing all public schools. That’s right — throwing your kids out on the street where they can pick up the drugs that the libertarian wants to legalize. If you doubt what I say, take a look at his party platform. Why hasn’t our libertarian friend come clean with you in this race? Is this the type of person you want representing you in office?”
What would the libertarian candidate say at that point? Would he say, “Well, I was going to tell you my real beliefs after I got elected”?
As long as libertarian candidates are not a political threat to their opponents, no one cares what they disclose or conceal. But what happens when they hit 20 percent or so in the polls? All of a sudden, the focus will be on the important issues that libertarians are often scared to address as part of their political campaigns: e.g., ending the drug war and separating school and state.
Therefore, since the issues are going to be addressed anyway if the libertarian is successful, isn’t the libertarian candidate better off addressing them up front and on his terms? Isn’t he better off taking the offensive against his opponents as soon as he leaves the starting block? Isn’t he better off immediately making his opponents defend the damage and destruction that the drug war and public schooling have wrought on the American people?
There is another very real danger with compromise and concealment in electoral politics — that an opponent will outflank the libertarian with more radical positions. A real-life example of this occurred in the political campaign of Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party’s 1996 presidential candidate.
In the fall of 1995, Browne was vying for the LP presidential nomination. A centerpiece of his campaign was to replace the national income tax with a national sales tax. Libertarians were critical of Browne’s position because the core tenet of libertarianism is an opposition to the initiation of force. Thus, libertarians, on principle, oppose all taxation because it is forces people to fund an activity that they might otherwise choose not to fund.
In a letter to the Libertarian Party News, the official newspaper of the LP, Browne ardently defended his sales tax plan. He argued that he was the first Libertarian Party presidential candidate in history who had a realistic chance to be elected president and that a political campaign “isn’t the place to browbeat people into accepting every aspect of libertarian dogma.”
Later, in the general election in November 1996, Browne received .5 percent of the votes cast by the American people, a result that surprised and disappointed Browne as well as most other libertarians. After the election, various theories were posited as to why Browne had not done better. One was that the national press failed to give adequate coverage to the Browne campaign — the so-called “Browne-out.” Another was that Browne was not included in the national presidential debates. A third was that the Libertarian Party did not have enough members and enough money to carry Browne to the presidency.
But another explanation for the electoral result lies with the New Hampshire presidential primary that took place in February 1996 — and the consequences of Browne’s sales tax compromise that led up to it.
The 1996 New Hampshire presidential primary was a libertarian presidential candidate’s dream. This primary has always been tailor-made for darkhorse candidates — those with little money and little name recognition. Since the state is relatively small in size, it is not difficult or expensive for candidates to visit most parts of it. Moreover, the vast majority of the population (two-thirds to three-fourths) lives in the southern portion of the state, making it even easier and less expensive for candidates to meet and talk to a large number of voters. And since the New Hampshire primary is the first in the nation’s presidential selection process, it captures an inordinate amount of attention from both the national and worldwide press, as well as from the American people.
Traditionally, New Hampshire voters have loved political underdogs. New Hampshirites have a long-established tradition of carefully listening to and considering the views of every presidential contender. No front-runner can ever feel safe when he comes campaigning in New Hampshire.
Most important, the New Hampshire Libertarian Party has arguably been the most successful in the country in creating a credible and positive image in its state. The LP’s gubernatorial candidates received a sufficient number of votes in the elections of 1990, 1992, and 1994 to qualify the Libertarian Party for major-party status in New Hampshire, enabling the LP to participate in the primary elections. (It was that accomplishment that enabled Libertarian Party presidential candidate Andre Marrou to compete in the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary and to outpoll Democrat and Republican candidates in Dixville Notch, the New Hampshire town whose returns are broadcast all over the nation immediately after the polls open.) Four Libertarian Party members have been elected to the New Hampshire legislature. And today, there are 28 LP members holding public office in the state.
Thus, the 1996 New Hampshire primary presented a golden opportunity in the 25-year history of the Libertarian Party. Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party’s front-runner for its presidential nomination, was effectively pitted against all of the other presidential candidates — Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, Richard Lugar, Bob Dornan, Alan Keyes, and Morey Taylor. The number of votes cast for Browne would be counted and compared with the number of votes cast for the other candidates. The New Hampshire Libertarian Party was poised and prepared for battle.
Imagine the public attention if Browne had drawn blood by outpolling the lowest rungs of Republican candidates — a real possibility with so many candidates splitting the Republican vote. Imagine the press coverage this would have generated. Imagine the increase in public pressure to include in the national presidential debates Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate who outpolled three or four Republican presidential contenders in New Hampshire.
But it was not to be.
In December 1995 — two months before the New Hampshire primarye — after having initially said that he intended to wage an active and aggressive campaign in New Hampshire, Browne announced that he had changed his campaign strategy. He said he had decided not to fight in New Hampshire after all and that he was switching his campaign strategy to making radio appearances from his home in Tennessee. Browne said that there was simply too much money being spent in New Hampshire and that the other candidates were getting too much press coverage. A “high noise level” is how Browne’s campaign manager, Sharon Ayres, described the problem in the Libertarian Party News.
But this may simply have been positive spin on an uncomfortable situation. For another explanation for Browne’s decision to abandon the New Hampshire battleground lay with his sales tax compromise — and the entry of Republican Steve Forbes into the presidential race.
Compared with the campaign positions of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and the other Republican primary candidates (all of whom cherished and adored the national income tax), Harry Browne’s sales tax plan did indeed appear radical. But when Steve Forbes unexpectedly entered the presidential race with a plan calling for a flat tax on income, Browne’s sales tax plan, all of a sudden, didn’t look so radical anymore.
Browne knew that any debate with Forbes would ultimately revolve around whether or not a national sales tax would be better than a flat income tax — not exactly a theme to inspire voters to “waste” their vote in the Libertarian Party’s primary election. To make matters worse, Browne had also indicated in his letter to LP News that he would favorably consider a flat tax as an alternative to his sales tax.
What could Browne do at that point? His compromise of libertarian philosophy had left him between a rock and a hard place. He could have stayed in New Hampshire and fought it out — even with his sales tax plan — which might have been the best approach because it might have resulted in lots of positive media coverage because of the sales tax versus flat tax debate.
Or Browne could have simply dropped his sales tax plan, called for a repeal of the income tax, and stayed and fought. But that would have been awkward because he had just taken libertarians to task in his letter to LP News for not supporting his sales tax plan, and he had two opponents fighting him for the LP nomination. Moreover, if Browne had started rising in the polls, Forbes and others would have undoubtedly accused him of waffling on the sales tax issue.
Also, the press and Browne’s opponents would have required him to reconcile a call for an immediate abolition of the income tax (entailing about $1.3 trillion of a $1.6 trillion budget) with Browne’s call to gradually phase down government spending. Browne’s economic plan, for example, called for $800 billion in spending during his first year in office. And while Browne continued to defend tariffs and excise taxes throughout his campaign, the revenues from these taxes, unless raised, would not be sufficient to finance the $800 billion.
Many months later, at the national Libertarian Party nominating convention in July 1996, Browne did his best to remedy his sales tax compromise. Addressing the assembly of delegates after winning the party’s nomination for president, Browne repeated his call for a repeal of the national income tax. But then he quickly added, to tumultuous applause from the audience, “and replace it with nothing.”
But by then, it was too late. The golden opportunity in the 1996 New Hampshire primary — the opportunity for Libertarians actually to fight and defeat Democrats and Republicans — had been lost. As things turned out, Browne would never again be presented an opportunity to be a player in the 1996 presidential sweepstakes.
The Browne presidential campaign provides an important lesson to all libertarians, including those in the political arena. Compromises of libertarian philosophy can be costly, even for political candidates. The road to success, both in the ideological and political battlegrounds, lies neither in compromise nor concealment, but instead in an up-front, honest, passionate, competent, and uncompromising exposition of libertarian principles.