TCS Daily


Boston Free Party

By W. James Antle - February 24, 2003 12:00 AM

The Libertarian Party is not exactly known for its electoral successes. Libertarian candidates lose most elections badly and those few that they do win tend to be for local offices. They have never held more than a handful of state legislative seats and have yet to win election to Congress - Ron Paul, the 1988 Libertarian presidential candidate has served in the House from 1977 to 1985 and again since 1997 as a Republican. The Libertarian Party's high watermark in presidential elections over the last 30 years was the 1.1 percent of the vote Ed Clarke won in 1980.

Similarly, Massachusetts is not known as a hotbed of small government activism. It is more frequently described as "Taxachusetts," the reliably liberal state that cast the only electoral votes for George McGovern in 1972 and has elected the likes of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis to high office. Massachusetts' state spending is like a runaway train that has tended to mow down any budget-cutters in its path. Moreover, despite recent Republican successes in gubernatorial elections, overall it remains a solidly one-party Democratic state.

Who then would have expected the Libertarians to raise their profile in Massachusetts politics in recent years? Yet that is exactly what they have done, with surprisingly positive results.

That libertarian sentiment has a counterintuitive appeal to some segments of the commonwealth is nothing new. Libertarian commentator David Brudnoy has long been one of Boston's most popular radio talk show hosts. Former Gov. William Weld was heavily influenced by libertarianism and was in turn the most successful Republican in Massachusetts politics during the 1990s; at his peak in 1994, he was reelected with 71 percent of the vote. But the relative ascendancy of the Bay State Libertarian Party began in 1998.

With longtime Democratic state Auditor Joseph DeNucci, a fierce opponent of privatization of state services, locked in a nasty race against Republican challenger Michael Duffy, some voters began to look for another alternative. They found one in Libertarian nominee Carla Howell, a management and strategy consultant with an MBA from Babson College. Her credentials and commitment to smaller government won her the attention and endorsement of theBoston Herald, Massachusetts' second-largest circulation newspaper. DeNucci was reelected by a wide margin, but Howell won 6 percent of the vote - double the state's requirement for the Libertarian Party to obtain automatic ballot access in the next election cycle.

In 2000, the state's habitually ineffective Republican Party was unable to recruit a major challenger to run against Sen. Ted Kennedy, who just six years prior had gotten the scare of his political life from a neophyte candidate named Mitt Romney. Credible prospects declined to run while the eventual nominee, businessman Jack E. Robinson, was involved in too many personal controversies to be a viable candidate. Howell ran as Kennedy's Libertarian challenger, railing against his support for massive social welfare spending, high taxes and restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Proclaiming that "small government is beautiful," she stood in marked contrast to an incumbent who believed human progress was inexorably tied to the growth of government. Many local Republicans and the Boston Globe's conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby endorsed Howell for Senate. The end result was that she captured 12 percent of the vote, running just a single point behind Republican Robinson. The 308,860 votes Howell received in Massachusetts alone approached the 382,892 votes Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne won nationwide that same year and according to Campaigns and Elections magazine was the most successful third-party Senate campaign of 2000.

Republicans failed to attract even a nominal opponent for Sen. John Kerry in 2002 and the Libertarians ran Michael Cloud, who topped Howell's Senate bid by winning 19 percent of the vote. But the biggest Massachusetts Libertarian achievement of 2002 was not Cloud's race for Senate or Howell's race for governor; it was the Question 1 ballot initiative to abolish the state income tax.

Pushed by the Libertarian Party but disavowed by state Republicans, Question 1 was otherwise known as the Small Government Act. Its objective was to stop taxing Massachusetts citizens' incomes and roll back state spending to where it was during Gov. Dukakis' last year in office. Supporters argued that income tax abolition would result in a $3,000 tax cut for 3 million working Bay State residents and lead to the creation of 300,000 to 500,000 new jobs. The Globe's Jacoby, one of the few pro-Question 1 voices in the major media, wrote, "Shrink state government and a hive of creative private activity will take its place. Individuals and organizations will form what Edmund Burke called the 'little platoons' of a free society - the voluntary associations that have been the wellspring of so much that is useful and humane in American life."

The conventional wisdom was that even the tax cut passed by Massachusetts voters in 2000, rolling back the state income tax rate to 5 percent, was in jeopardy and that abolition of the tax entirely had no chance. The Boston Globe showed only 34 percent planning to vote yes on Question 1; the Boston Herald found just 25 percent. Instead, Question 1 received 45.4 percent of the vote - coming within a few points of passage - and prevailed in nearly a third of the commonwealth's cities and towns.

There are lessons to be learned from this by all advocates of smaller government, not just those who work within the Libertarian Party. One is the importance of linking lower taxes and government spending to increased liberty, personal responsibility and economic prosperity. Republicans who refuse to make this case are creating a void that others must be willing to fill. Yet another lesson is that at times supporters of smaller government can bypass the old arguments about whether it is better to support the Republicans or a third-party candidate. Howell, who spent most of her own campaign promoting Question 1, did not even put a dent in Mitt Romney's vote totals. Moreover, the high vote total for Question 1 helps Romney, now that he is Republican governor of the state, maintain his pledge not to raise taxes.

The most important lesson is that politicians should not run away from shrinking government and expanding freedom. Massachusetts Libertarians still lack any major victories. But if a small third party can make this much progress on behalf of smaller government in a one-party state with a strong tradition of big-government activism, imagine how much progress more established figures - such as those within the Republican Party - could make if they could only summon the political will.

W. James Antle is a freelance writer from Massachusetts.
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