If, as seems as plausible as not, the Libertarian Party today decides to nominate Gary Johnson as its president while rejecting Johnson's hand-picked selection of former Massachusetts governor William Weld as his vice-presidential running mate, the sneering headlines will write themselves: "Party Boos Drivers Licenses, Rejects Veep for Being Too Normal." Or maybe, "MegaCon or LP: Which Convention Had the Most Costumed Freaks?"
The Libertarian Party National Convention has been largely a celebratory affair, as delegates, alternates, and longtime activists coming out of the woodwork bask in the exponentially increased media attention, and salivate at the prospects of being the third-party beneficiary of America's two-party nervous breakdown. The number-one question delegates ask me, unprompted, is some variation on "Isn't this great?!"
But that doesn't mean there aren't tensions and age-old divides that are being exposed and exacerbated along the way. The party of anti-state anarchists and proudly marginal weirdos has to grapple with nominating a normcore ticket of 1990s Republican governors in an election year that elsewhere has been electrified by the wild-eyed Bernie Sanders and the mores-shattering Donald Trump. Though the betting money is still solidly on the side of Gary Johnson repeating as presidential nominee, the loudest conversation all convention long has been whether these fundamental tensions will see their biggest expression in today's subsequent vote on William Weld.
Weld's perceived lack of Libertarian bonafides has drawn audible booing here, produced several moments of dissonance at Friday night's vice-presidential debate, and generated such headlines as Politico's "Libertarian 'dream ticket' in peril as Weld bombs in Orlando." Johnson, who I interviewed and hung around with Friday, is responding to this reaction with a mixture of incredulity, humility, fatalism, and defiance. "I will not be elected president of the United States if Bill Weld is not my vice presidential pick," he told Brian Doherty. "It's not going to happen. It's just that simple."
Weld, who is maintaining a sense of equanimity about it all, told me in an interview yesterday that he'll do what he can to help the Libertarian ticket and party for the rest of his active life no matter what happens today. Meanwhile, gossips are sketching out various Plan B and Plan C scenarios, often involving either VP candidate Larry Sharpe (who was impressive at Friday's debate), or Austin Petersen, should he lose the presidential vote and should there emerge a subsequent groundswell of support for changing the rules so that he could throw his hat in the ring, which party longtimers say is a fairly routine matter.
Reason has covered many of the controversies over Weld's candidacy; start backward from this search. But first, as a sort of snapshot of where the Libertarian Party is at in May 2016, here are the six most common complaints I've heard about him at the convention, listed in no particular order.
1) He showed up 10 days ago, after 10 years of being alienated from the Libertarian Party. Even 2008 nominee Bob Barr—who would retreat back to the GOP less than four years after his run—came over to do some spade work with the L.P. 18 months before running for president, points out longtime Georgia Libertarian activist Doug Craig. Springing the Weld announcement just prior to the convention rubbed a lot of people here the wrong way, including, privately, several members of party leadership. His performance at the vice presidential debate suggested someone not particularly fluent with the arcana of L.P. philosophical debates.
The Libertarian Party during its 45 years has been more or less continuously riven by a fundamental divide between idealists and pragmatists, between people focused on making sure the Messenger is bringing the right Message and those focused more on maximizing the widest possible audience. The fact that Weld's suggested nomination brought forth a possibly unprecedented level of media attention and respect to the L.P. reinforces the view of both camps: Hooray for more free and positive media! Fie on the statist preferences of journalists!
Those who have sweated over years and decades to make this plucky little collection of political oddballs the third biggest party in the United States feel some completely understandable human emotions of underappreciation when faced with recent converts who want to step off the boat into leadership positions. And, they also smell an unprecedented electoral opportunity. Conflict!
2) Weld is yet another former Republican, at a time when the juice within the party just doesn't have much of a Republican flavor. Not only was 2008 nominee Bob Barr a former Republican congressman, his running mate, Las Vegas hustler Wayne Allyn Root, had written a book three years previously titled Millionaire Republican. (Root, like Barr, would leave the L.P. in 2012, becoming at first a Tea Party champion and eventually an evangelist for Donald Trump.) There is a palpable wariness at becoming a way station for lower-tier Republicans trying to opportunistically worm their way onto a coveted ballot slot. Favorite VP alternative Larry Sharpe even claimed to me in an interview that the selection of two mainstreamish former Republican governors could "set the party back 10 years," because it would alienate the decidedly non-Republican activist base, who would then have to be painstakingly wooed back.
The party as it exists now is experiencing a historical surge. Yes, some of this is directly attributable to the American public waking up after the Indiana primary and realizing that we've got six agonizing months ahead of us of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, but as LNC Chairman Nicholas Sarwark told me, Libertarians over the last two years have been the only political party to see its membership rolls increase. There are new candidates, young candidates, competent candidates and activists, who are making real inroads in states like Washington, real change in states like New Hampshire, and spurring giddy talk about the most promising third-party moment since 1860.
Who are these characters injecting palpable energy into Orlando and elsewhere? They're the Ron Paul kids from 2007-2008, who just were never that Republican to begin with. Or people who were exposed early on to the ideas and its practitioners (including Reason, as I keep hearing here). Or youngish lawyers, or entrepreneurs or Free State freakers or motivational speakers or campus activists or dozens of other flavors of human who finds the word "libertarian" (capitalized or not) a natural fit requiring neither hyphenation nor tortured explanation for alleged deviation from the norm.
At Friday's vice presidential debate, Sharpe, an energetic black management consultant from New York, scored heavily in his closing statements by saying that he's not against his former-Republican brothers and sisters being in the Libertarian Party, it's just that they need to realize that they're only a part of the party, not its permanent managerial class. (Sharpe made a similar crack about "old white guys," prompting a growly Gary Johnson Saturday to kick off his nominating speech with the line: "I want you all to know that I am NOT an old white guy. And I am NOT Republican-lite. I'm a Libertarian, and I'm proud of it!")
3) Weld supports U.S. membership in the United Nations. "That's a potential dealbreaker," said one delegate who supports Weld's candidacy. To give you an idea about the temperature of the L.P. grassroots on such issues, three of the five leading candidates who participated in the presidential debate Saturday night unequivocally advocated withdrawing the United States from the U.N., the International Monetary Fund, and NATO (a fourth candidate, wiseacre Marc Allan Feldman, joked around the answer). Only Gary Johnson dodged the question, with a rambly answer about getting the Chinese to help bring the dangerous North Koreans to the diplomatic table.
4) He defended his prior support for gun restrictions in part by calling himself a "lifelong hunter." What's wrong with that, you say? Code-words, say the gun-rights people here. When a politician emphasizes hunting over self-defense, it's a sign that he disrespects the fundamental purpose of firearm ownership.
5) He screwed over the Libertarian Party in New York 10 years ago. It's a complicated story given the Empire State's unusual multi-party politics, but Weld was going to be the great Libertarian hope in the 2006 gubernatorial race but then backed out of the party's nomination when he did not also concurrently win the Republican Party nomination. People in the New York delegation here remember this incident like it was yesterday, and have vowed revenge. (In his interview with me, Weld chalked up the conflict to a series of cascadingly negative political events that overwhelmed him.)
6) He supported John Kasich for president as recently as 2016. While L.P. activists who bring this up have been irritated mostly by the Ohio governor's role in blunting Libertarian Party ballot access, certain non-L.P. libertarian journalists whose names rhyme with "Fat Belch" also point out that the liberal media's favored GOP candidate this cycle had an easily discoverable campaign record as an interventionist nightmare on foreign policy. Weld told me that his Kasich endorsement was merely based on the former congressman's role in balancing the federal budget way back when.
Despite these six reasons (and plenty of grumbling besides), there's still a strong chance that William Weld may yet win the nomination. How is that possible? Delegates here have given me two reasons, over and over again:
1) That's who Gary Johnson wants. If the presidential nominee says campaigning without Weld is like running a marathon on one leg, then by gum we should listen to the guy. Maybe he knows a thing or two about the realities of campaigning that the average An-Cap undervalues.
2) The outside world would use a Weld rejection as evidence that Libertarians can't even score on a free kick, because they're too busy being crazy Libertarians. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had here in which delegates have asked me, anxiously, about how the political/media world outside the convention building would treat a Weld rebuke. "Will they think we're just crazy?" they ask. I reply that it will be very difficult for non-libertarian journalists to understand. Hence this long blog post!
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