Libertarians Insist They Have Moved Into Political Mainstream If They Don't Achieve Recognition Any Time Soon, Blame It On The Kook Factor. Presidential Candidate Harry Browne, 63, Is On The Ballot In 33 States.

Posted: July 27, 1996

WASHINGTON — For any other politician, it would have been an unusual campaign stop: Twenty-somethings in cutoff jeans, bandanas, bikinis and tattoos sat on the grass across from the White House, singing loudly: ``Marijuana. Marijuana. Hey, Hey. Get hiiiigh.''

Suspicious-smelling smoke hung in the hot afternoon air.

Libertarian Party presidential hopeful Harry Browne stepped up to the microphone, looking every inch a stodgy conservative. Blue suit with matching socks. Gold watch. Coiffed silver-white hair. Piercing blue eyes.

Instead of admonishing the ragtag crowd at the Hemp Rally, as many a 63-year-old businessman might, to knock off this nonsense, get cleaned up and get a job, Browne raised his hand in legalized-drug solidarity.

``Our time is coming!'' he shouted. ``There's only one candidate absolutely opposed to the insane war on drugs, and that's Harry Browne!''

As the crowd shrieked ``Right on, man!'' and ``Ha-ree, Ha-ree,'' Browne took the elbow of his wife, Pamela, and said to a visitor: ``Coming to the gay and lesbian caucus?''

While the scene would be enough to make Bob Dole wince and force President Clinton to hold his breath, it's the Libertarian Party's version of a standard rubber-chicken dinner. And it illustrates why the 25-year-old party has failed to move beyond the sidelines of American politics.

True, investment writer Browne is on the ballot in 33 states. Party registration has grown to 123,000 in 28 states. Generation X Libertarian Clubs are springing up on college campuses, and more than 100 Libertarians have been elected to state and local offices.

Browne, hardly a household name, recently won three separate Internet straw polls against Clinton and Dole, prompting the nickname: ``President of Cyberspace.''

With antigovernment cynicism at an all-time high, and polls showing nearly two-thirds of all voters are ready for a third party, Libertarian Party officials insist they are on the verge of a political breakthrough.

``The American people are fed up with this wasteful, extravagant government,'' Browne told a crowd of 600 delegates at the party convention in Washington this month. ``They are on our side now. We are mainstream.''

But don't look for the Libertarians to supplant the Republicans or Democrats anytime soon, if ever. Blame the kook factor.

The party attracts its share of antigovernment nuts - witness the recently indicted Arizona Viper who not only is accused of making a video of government buildings to blow up, but also ran for the state legislature as a Libertarian.

And Browne had to contend for the presidential nomination with Irwin Schiff, whose claims to fame are a book, How Anyone Can Stop Paying Income Taxes, and a few months in prison for about $1.2 million in unpaid back taxes.

Browne's fame comes from such books as You Can Profit From a Monetary Crisis.

``People should be flocking to the Libertarian Party, and they're not. And for that, we can look right in the mirror,'' said Don Gorman, 58, a chimney sweep and Libertarian state representative in New Hampshire. ``We started with a real screwball image.''

The party has gone to great lengths to clean up its image. Extensive briefing papers and a cadre of locally elected officials like Gorman have replaced celebrations of militia members at conventions.

But the party's credo of freedom means that anything or any candidate, however odd, goes.

Its economic conservatism makes Newt Gingrich look like a leftie. In his campaign book, Why Government Doesn't Work, Browne proposes slashing all government functions except for the military, the police and the courts. Everything else - Social Security, Medicare, national parks - would be privatized. Charities would take care of the poor. His $100-billion-a-year federal budget would be funded by tariffs. The income tax would be abolished.

This ultraconservative laissez-faire capitalism is coupled with a social hands-off attitude. Drugs? Legalize them. Helmet laws? Repeal them. Guns? Same-sex marriages? Whatever. Abortion? Have one, but don't expect any taxpayer money to help pay for it.

Get the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom, goes the motto.

But perhaps the most compelling reason why the Libertarian Party is unlikely to burst onto the political scene is because, in a sense, it already has.

The Republican Revolution of 1994 was built largely on antigovernment libertarian ideas like returning power to the states, cutting entire federal agencies, and turning some government functions over to the private sector.

Those ideas got their first real airing during former Arco lawyer Ed Clark's well-oiled run for president in 1980. He ran TV ads, traveled the country, and received nearly one million votes. The key was money. Clark's running mate, David Koch of the Kansas oil family, poured millions into the race.

A few years later, the Koch family and other big party backers decided a third party would always doom a movement to the fringes. They put their money into think tanks, like the now-formidable Cato Institute in Washington, and magazines to further the libertarian message.

Now, those very libertarian institutions are the party's biggest critics, calling it a goofy anachronism. An embarrassment. Passe.

Browne is skewered in the latest issue of the libertarian Reason magazine for declaring that he has a chance of winning. ``It is like watching a drunk belting out a tune at a karaoke bar: You stare transfixed, cringing at every slurred word, every sour note, wondering who the hell is going to pull him off the stage,'' wrote Nick Gillespie.

And if that weren't damning enough, the Cato Institute discourages any involvement in the Libertarian Party.

``The Libertarian Party is close to being irrelevant,'' said William Niskanen, chairman of the institute and a former Reagan administration official. ``The few occasions I've had to view Libertarian Party activities, they look like a lot of lonely people doing silly things in public.''

For the longest time, Browne thought the same thing. The Republican Revolution is what changed his mind. He liked the talk about returning to a limited constitutional government. Then he watched Republicans vote to censor the Internet and squabble with Democrats over how to slow, not cut, Medicare spending and other federal programs.

He'd had it. He joined the Libertarian Party, and announced his bid for the presidency.

``There is all this talk about smaller government. All this rhetoric. But then nothing happens,'' Browne said, exasperated. ``There has to be a focus for these ideas. Those that think the Republican Party is going to be that focus are simply dreaming. The Libertarian Party is the only way.''

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