- - Sunday, January 5, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Bob Barr is quite a character. In a career that has included a stint with the CIA, service as a United States attorney during the Reagan years, eight years as a member of Congress who was an early critic of President Clinton and one of the first to call on his colleagues to impeach the president, a columnist and commentator and tilter against both liberal shibboleths and windmills, Mr. Barr has made a mark wherever he’s been.

A Reaganite with libertarian leanings, Mr. Barr as a member of Congress was a warrior in the era’s drug wars and staunch defender of traditional values. That changed after he lost his seat as a result of redistricting. He eventually lobbied against the Defense of Marriage Act that he once co-sponsored, and he came to regard the nation’s drug laws as counterproductive. Mr. Barr even took on the American Civil Liberties Union as a client and ran for president not as a Republican, but as a Libertarian.

Some who have tracked Mr. Barr’s changes on some of these positions over the years smell a rat. They see him as an ideological empty suit, willing to take on the coloration of any portion of the electorate he seems to be pandering to at any given time. In September, for example, the conservative National Review editorially suggested, “If the candidate wants to be conservative, he should be conservative. If he wants to be libertarian, he should be libertarian. But he shouldn’t shift around based on the electoral prospects before him.”

That could be a generic piece of advice to candidates willing to jettison their own beliefs on the basis of poll results or their managers’ suggestions as to how to “go after” one voter group or another, but offered as a specific criticism of Mr. Barr, it doesn’t ring true. There has been little unanimity on the right for the issues on which Mr. Barr has shifted, and the new stances he’s taken have often seemed less than politically wise.

There’s a reason for that. The man is incredibly bright, honest to a fault and one of the least “political” people to be found in political life. He has always said exactly what he thinks and, in the process, has managed to anger as many in and out of Congress as one might imagine. Republican congressional leaders found him almost impossible to deal with because he simply wasn’t much interested in tempering his views for their convenience. He got things done not through normal channels, but because he fought hard on the floor for everything in which he believed. One can imagine the congressional leadership breathing a sigh of relief when he lost his seat, thinking they’d never have to deal with Bob Barr again.

The man’s back, or on the verge of coming back. He’s running in the GOP primary to succeed Rep. Phil Gingrey in Georgia’s 11th Congressional District. Mr. Gingrey, like several of his GOP colleagues, is giving up his seat for a shot at the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The district itself is heavily Republican, so whoever wins the primary is likely to be sworn in to office next January.

The problem is that there are currently eight announced candidates. The betting is that while Mr. Barr may well make the runoff, he could have trouble against a strong establishment or consistently more mainstream conservative candidate in such a race. State Sen. Barry Loudermilk, for example, has a legislative track record of success that includes a law that rendered his state’s red-light cameras unprofitable, and cutting wasteful spending.

So the question at present may not be will Mr. Barr win, but should he? When Mr. Barr was defeated by fellow Republican incumbent John Linder after the Democrats redistricted them into the same district, he asked me and other Republican conservatives he counted as friends and allies whether he should run again. I counseled against him doing so, arguing that he would be happier and perhaps even more influential on the outside offering conservatives on the inside ideas they could adopt and adapt as their own. “You would shift in their eyes from being a pain to being a resource,” I told him, and he agreed.

The year ahead affords conservatives a chance not just to increase their numbers in the House and Senate, but to elect men and women with ideas at all levels. Some are facing re-election, such as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Others have served before and could contribute again, such as Mr. Barr and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is running for governor in his native Arkansas. Still others are new. The good ones share not simply a desire to hold office, but to advance ideas. The more people driven by ideas are elected this fall, the better off the country will be.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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