Johnson/Weld: The Libertarian Key to Republicans' Hearts? Johnson Already Polling 10 Percent from Fox News

Or is Johnson's social liberalism anathema to many would-be Republican #nevertrumps? And do Republicans like Weld anyway?


William Weld, a former Reagan administration Justice Department official (bonus points for having resigned in protest in 1988 over Edwin Meese's behavior) and two-term governor of Massachusetts (he resigned from that in 1997 before his second term ended, seeking to be named Clinton's ambassador to Mexico, which did not happen thanks to opposition from Jesse Helms) is seeking the Libertarian Party's vice presidential nomination in alliance with another two-term GOP governor from the west, New Mexico's Gary Johnson.

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This Weld news is making some from the libertarian world outside the L.P.'s orbit happy. Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz said in an email regarding the news that "across a range of issues, economic, social, civil liberties, I'd say Weld was the most libertarian governor in memory, except for Johnson…I think this is a huge coup for Johnson and the LP."

Posts here at Reason by me and Jesse Walker take a more critical look at Weld's libertarian bonafides.

There's a good chance the thinking behind the Weld pick had nothing to do with Libertarians or libertarianism. (Do note that the assembled 1,000 or so delegates expected at the L.P.'s national convention over Memorial Day weekend have to pick, by bare majority, both their presidential choice and then separately their vice president, so Johnson-Weld is not a done deal.)

Likely it has more to do with crafting an unassailable "serious" ticket that both national media and voters (and donors!) can't reject for being organically incapable of governing, even if the specific names of Johnson and Weld don't mean too much. (My own cynical suspicion is that merely being a third party, not to mention being libertarian, might be sufficient for vast swaths of media and voters to discount the L.P. despite the pedigree of its nominees.)

Even prior to the Weld news breaking, a new Fox News poll from a survey conducted from May 14-17 shows Johnson getting 10 percent, with Trump getting 42 and Clinton 39.

A column today by Philip Bump in the Washington Post presents a close to best-case scenario for what a Johnson-Weld ticket might win for the L.P. Bump's thoughts appear under the headline "Did The Libertarian Party Just Stumble Upon a Viable Stop-Trump Ticket?"

Bump has a complicated and to my mind not terribly likely scenario to lay out, but the fact that such a story is appearing pre-nomination in the Washington Post at all is more significant than the specifics of Bump's analysis. 

But to sum up that analysis:

But the [Johnson-Weld] ticket also accomplishes another goal of the third-party effort: It could shift the vote in some states that otherwise might be easy wins for Hillary Clinton…….

If Johnson and Weld capture their home states (an "if" that should be in 89-point type, as we'll explain in a second), and if Trump manages to capture, say, Florida and Pennsylvania or Ohio, suddenly we end with no one having a majority—and we're off to the House.

The last time a non-major-party candidate won a state was in 1968, when George Wallace captured most of the Deep South….

So could a Johnson-Weld ticket snag some states? Well…

Bump then goes on to, unintentionally, lay out exactly how unimpressive a public political figure William Weld in 2016 should reasonably be expected to be:

Weld served as the governor of Massachusetts for six years, resigning in 1997 when Bill Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico. (The Senate rejected his nomination.) He moved to New York, his home state, where he ran for governor in 2006, losing the nomination to John Faso (who himself lost the race in a landslide).

On the bright side for the Libertarians, though, says Bump:

What Weld brings to the equation, then, is something of a base in the light-blue Northeast to match Johnson's something-of-a-base in the Southwest. He offers an opportunity to eat into Clinton's advantage to some degree in two northeastern states—though probably not in any meaningful way in New York—as Johnson could help eat into her lead in New Mexico. In theory.

In reality, it's probably not that simple. In the Fox News poll, Johnson pulled evenly from Democrats and Republicans—about 8 percent of the vote among each—while winning about a fifth of the independent vote.

Bump wonders/hopes/predicts that a Johnson/Weld ticket could propel themselves in awareness and polls via imagined big money from Republican donors very unhappy with Trump. Such a story rose and fell this morning, with reports proven false of David Koch (who is on the board of trustees of the Reason Foundation, which owns this publication) being willing to give Johnson big bucks.

I've been asking Johnson since March and including this week if any of this imagined big disenchanted GOP donor money has come his way or seems to be, and the answer is always the same: not as far as he knows, but wouldn't it make sense?

Weld himself spoke to The New York Times today in his first press since the Libertarian VP news broke, and said some interesting things, including the very strange declaration that while he hears echoes of Kristallnacht in Trump's immigration pronouncement, a guy planning to run for office that kind of depends on winning the support of #nevertrump folks says clearly that he's not one!

He's "not horrified" by everything about Trump, though he thinks "some of the positions" Trump takes are "way out there." Weld said some decently anti-interventionist things to the Times, admitted he just loves running for office, and waxed mistily about the glory days of working in Congress for Republican New York Sen. Jacob Javits, back in the days before partisan gridlock when "it was wonderful to be in Washington…things absolutely got done." (For some reason, this is all making me dream of a Doonesbury sequence about Weld as Libertarian. All that '70s political nostalgia I guess.)

For those into delicately protecting GOP amour propre, Weld has been a sore spot with some of them for a long time for being not properly dedicated to the Republican Party as Party; see this Steve Kornacki column from the Observer in 2008 for the angry Republican's bill of indictment against Weld as a treacherous RINO.

National Review, also strongly anti-Trump but speaking for a different Republican perspective than Bump and the Post, ran a profile today of one of Johnson's leading opponents also seeking the L.P. nomination, Austin Petersen, which implies he will likely have more appeal to Republicans.

Although he's unmistakably libertarian on foreign policy, Petersen falls somewhere closer to conservatism on one social issue in particular: He's pro-life. Petersen tells National Review he believes the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness begins at conception.

Petersen tossed his hat into the ring after Rand Paul dropped out of the Republican race and the Republican field began to winnow, when he says he realized there would be no constitutional, pro-life candidate on the ballot…. On almost every other social issue, Petersen is staunchly libertarian. "I want gay couples to be able to protect their marijuana fields with fully automatic rifles," he says — a line he often uses to sum up his domestic policy. "That might terrify some people," he says. "If you're terrified of freedom, you might be better off with Bernie or Hillary."

 Petersen views 2016 as a "breakthrough year" for the Libertarian party….a third-party candidate might be the only option on the ballot for "Never Trump" and "Never Hillary" voters. If it's Petersen, he says he's running on conscience, "damn the consequences."

Kyle Sammin at The Federalist also echoes Petersen's concerns about Johnson's willingness to embrace anti-discrimination law as something that will cost him potential Republican votes, especially in an age when such culture war and identity concerns seem more and more dominant and likely played a big role in Trump's rise. "On questions of religious liberty," Sammin writes, "Johnson's instinct is often to take a position more like that of a secular Democrat than a Republican."

Federalist publisher Benjamin Domenech in his daily newsletter The Transom quoted extensively from Sammin's piece, and framed it even more negatively with the headline "The Libertarian Party Remains Useless."