Gary Johnson

Johnson and Wrights Square Off in Libertarian Presidential Debate

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Gary Johnson debates Lee Wrights at the 2012 Libertarian Party Convention

Las Vegas—The final debate in the race for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination between Gary Johnson and Lee Wrights was, mostly, a friendly affair that felt more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate. Former LP presidential candidate David Bergland softly tossed questions to the candidates that seemed as if they were designed to elicit responses that would convert those watching on C-SPAN to libertarianism rather than display the differences, however slight, between the two candidates. At times it was even tedious, though as Johnson would say later in the debate, you almost always know how a Libertarian will come down on an issue. Even though we live in an era where libertarianism is more popular and widespread than ever there are still people out there that have no idea what it is about, so there is the need, in the LP's eyes, to appeal to the casual viewer.

Early questions like, "How you found the Libertarian Party" and "What is Libertarianism?" reinforced the infomercial feel but they did get some great responses.

Johnson said he became a libertarian after somebody gave him a book in 1971 about libertarianism. His worldview was forever changed and he passed the book on in the hopes of changing the mind of somebody else.

"For eight years I got to serve as a Libertarian governor under the guise of being a Republican. I have come out of the closet," he said.

Wrights tried to connect his libertarianism with the delegates on a more personal level.

"Libertarianism is a life choice, it is more than a political party. It is more than the people in this room," he said.

As the debate wore on it became clear that Johnson was taking the debate very seriously and thinking about the long term while Wrights played the role of convention jester. Johnson has stated numerous times during his run that he is committed to the Libertarian Party and, assuming he loses in 2012, running again in 2016 on the LP line. Wrights has been running since 2010 and tomorrow could potentially be the end of his presidential aspirations, meaning that he has nothing left to lose.

The only real point of contention between the two came during a discussion about the elimination of the IRS, a long-time dream of LP members. Johnson talked up his record of not raising taxes and said he would repeal the income tax and abolish the IRS while replacing it with the Fair Tax.

Wrights pounced.

"I agree. We need to abolish the IRS, do away with the income tax and replace it with nothing. I am sorry folks but there is no such thing as a fair tax. It might be fair to government but it isn't fair to us. We don't need a national sales tax," he said, his voice occasionally booming.

Johnson, somewhat startled, stayed on message and defended his position on the Fair Tax as incremental.

"I think at a minimum, abolishing the federal income tax, the corporate tax, the IRS, and replacing it with a consumption tax, I think that is an improvement over what we have. I think as a president I would like to articulate the need for replacing that tax," said Johnson.

Wrights fed off this exchange and he became even more animated, endearing himself to the crowd.

Johnson may have appeared as the more serious candidate but he occasionally stumbled when answering even the most basic of questions. The Federal Reserve raised its head during the debate and Johnson's long and complicated answer, which stopped short of calling for the Fed's elimination, could hurt him with Ron Paul supporters.

The initial reaction to the debate seemed mixed. Most delegates I spoke to said Wrights impressed them, but we won't know until tomorrow if the debate moved any votes. Meanwhile, more delegates, most expected to support Johnson, are expected to arrive on Saturday.