July 09, 2004

Winning Libertarian Strategy

In order for Libertarians to win, they have to start playing smarter. Up to this point, we tend to try and win the moral victories. We try to run the purist campaign, and debate philosophy to the uneducated masses. We try to be perfect in every way. We don't try to be radical, but we rarely shy away from it. And so here we are, the people with the best answers and the strongest ideas, but for all that we've still never won a US House race. Sure, we're stronger than all the third parties put together, we are THE third party, but we're not in the house.

How can we fix this? Well, we need to look at our methods. Politics is kinda like warfare. It's a big conflict, it takes a lot of time, there are many nuances, different strategies, generals, captains, sergeants, grunts, and there are winners and losers. The way we fight the war right now is overly ambitious. We fight to win the whole thing in one bang. Imagine if ike had tried to drop troops on Berlin in March, 1942. Aside from the fact that we had no paratroopers, we would've lost anyway. That was much too ambitious.

The LP is running a war and we try hardest for two goals: the smallest of races and the biggest of races. The tiny little nonpartisan races for water conservation board are important to localities, but they don't help a whole lot with party building. The Presidential race is great for prestige and party building, but we'll never win it. We're spending our efforts onr aces that either almost nobody cares about or almost nobody thinks we can win. In the war analogy, we're occupying tiny abandoned utility sheds outside the enemy's base, and we're trying to capture the center of their entire command. That's an awfully big shift.

We need to focus on the races we can win and that matter. We need to focus on state races in a few concentrated states. This is how the Liberals (now Liberal Democrats) in England fought their way back from a handful of MPs. They built up loyalties in a few areas with local elections and then ran for Parliament. Their districts are fairly small, so elections are a different ballgame over there, but the principle is the same. We need to work our way up the whole ladder.

Local races are valuable when it makes a libertarian credible for state House or state senate races. That's how Democrats and Republicans do it - they don't go straight to the US Senate race unless they already have a community record or a very famous face (business, movies, sports). We need to eat our vegetables before we get to the chocolate cake, and tiny local races are the vegetables. Win the school board race, win it again, then run for your local state house district. You have experience, you have friends, you understand what the state house can and should do to help your community and your school district. It's a plain good idea besides helping us to win elections.

The national party should identify the races where somebody can win a state house or state senate race with reasonable funding, and target those races. Unless we get a boatload of money, this list should be small (no more than a couple dozen) so we can concentrate the funds where they do the most good. Inevitably a lot of these will be in New Hampshire if the Free State Project gets going. So we should send national LP money to the Live Free or Die state. Focus on getting people back into the NH state house, and use that to build credibility, then run for state Senate. If somebody is popular with a big face, run him or her for US House after that. Eventually there will be a reasonable race for Governor. Obviously this is going to take a long time if it ever works, but this is the kind of pattern we have to follow if we want to win. new Hampshire is a great state because of fusion, so if the Republicans nominate a libertarian-ish governor, we could do fusion with them (I think current Governor Benson is a pretty libertarian guy for a Republican, he deserves the LP line).

We need to take this strategy toward building the party. Only if we can win local races that matter can we build into a party with Congressional representation. The problem then, is that we don't focus on the mid-level races, the ones between dog catcher and President. We need to a) stop running for US Congress unless it's a two-way race or somebody has a great shot at winning, b) stop trying to run a full slate (I know it feels great, I swell with pride at the though of a full libertarian ballot, but then they all go down to lose, we need all our money and volunteers going to fewer races to pool our resources), c) make our presidential candidate work for these local races, send him to all the districts we've targeted above for national money, then send him again, send him to another event there, then send him again.

We need to have representation in the presidential race and maybe in gubernatorial races, this proves we're not juist some third-rate, no-backing party. But after that we can't splurge on filling the ballot. I love a full LP ballot but it hurts us in the long run. It's a luxury we can't yet afford. Better 1 elected libertarian on an otherwise empty ballot than a dozen losing libertarians. Sending the candidate to local races can really help in those races, and really show we mean business. Imagine if you got to meet Badnarik or Nolan or Russo, told him you liked where he was going but he was too extreme or you had to vote for Bush or Kerry to stop Kerry or Bush, then in response he asks you if you'll support X state house candidate. It's awfully good publicity, it's good for the local candidate, it's good for the party.

It's important we narrow our efforts to win. We don't have the exorbitant sums of money the two establishment parties have. We have to spend smarter. The candidate for President is vital, it gives us face time and legitimacy, and spreads knowledge of the word libertarian. We can't abandon that. We must abandon these races for US Congress. Our money and efforts should go to state house races. If we make the presidential candidate go to state house races we can combine the budget for the state house and presidential campaigns.

Now, of course, it's also very important to group together our efforts. The Free State Project is the perfect example. Getting our money and volunteers into closer and more efficient groupings is very effective for the purpose of partybuilding. This feeds into building local followings, a la the English Liberal Democrats. Anywhere we go, we have to spend money to promote the party and our ideas. If we were only in one or a few states, then our efforts at legitimacy and party promotion build on each other. This is much more efficient, so we should really try to build the party in New Hampshire. The LP should build a strategy complementary to the Free State Project, but also make sure to support growing parties in other states.

So, a brief summary: we need to convince people to our party, to do this we should focus on winnable races without losing the presidential campaign, and we should support the free state project as the most efficient method to promote the party.

Now, we also need to focus on a campaign platform. We should have a specific focus. We have been trying to win on philosophy. This puts us in the position of defending the entire libertarian platform in one blow. We should be fighting the real battle. We don't need to prove that libertarianism as a whole is perfect and true for all times and for all people. We only need to prove that individual policies are right. We shouldn't focus on taking on everything - that's great academics, bad politics - we should focus on easily winnable arguments.

Instead of arguing that we need to end all taxes, let's argue to eliminate the bottom income bracket, which hurts a lot of hard-working lower income Americans. Instead of arguing for the legalization of all drugs, let's argue to legalize medicinal marijuana. We need to focus on winnable fights. We have the best arguments out there, we're just not making them intelligently.

We need to embrace incremental libertarianism. It's better pragmatically, and it's better politically. We can't get the abolition of all taxation in a few short years, but we can get rid of a couple of the more intrusive or harmful ones. Therefore I suggest the following revised platform, to be revised again every two years to be more ambitious in light of whatever successes we accomplish:

1) Ballot access reform
2) Reduction of taxes, especially sin taxes, sales taxes, and taxes with disproportionate effects on lower income people
3) Medical marijuana, and marijuana decriminalization
4) School vouchers and charter schools
5) Deregulation of marriage, allowing gay and polygamous marriage
6) Free trade agreements (federal)
7) Lighten load on small businesses, especially regulations and taxes

And there's a lot more we could put in here, but I wanted to keep it short. We need to focus on issues that are in contention. Nobody asked us if the SEC should be abolished or all drugs legalized, nobody wants to know what we think about the gold standard or the Department of Interior eliminated. These are not issues in contention. But taxes, medical marijuana, vouchers, gay marriage (we'd have a truly unique position, we don't discriminate against polygamy like the Democrats), free trade, third parties, these are important issues. These are issues that get talked about on cable news, these are the issues we need to be present on. We're not engaging the center on the right issues, we're engaging them at the fringe where nobody pays attention.

When I was learning how play chess, the most important piece of strategy my father taught me was to keep my pieces in the middle. The idea was that you wanted to be in the middle of the battle where you could do the most damage. In politics, it's different but even more important. You must stay relevant to be included. If we talk about the issues of today then we can get pundits and politicos on shows like Lou Dobbs, O'Reilly Factor, Scarborough, the Sunday morning shows, etc. We can be included in the debate, and since we have the best arguments we will benefit from this exposure.

So we need to consolidate, target state races, and talk about relevant, plausible policies. This is the best way to get a few Libertarians into the US House, to build the party, and to see our policies come to fruition.

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