Libertarian Party Presidential Debate: Gary Johnson is From a Different World

Can even their nominee from 2012 be libertarian enough for the Libertarian Party?


The final presidential debate at the Libertarian Party National Convention happened last night (aired live on C-SPAN), featuring what most media treated as the "likely three"—former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, antivirus software innovator John McAfee, and libertarian movement mover and shaker Austin Petersen—plus anarchist firebrand Darryl Perry and surprisingly amusing wildcard Marc Feldman, selected via token ballots cast by Libertarian delegates.

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The debate lasted a punishing two hours. I was unable tonight to learn who wrote the questions, which were delivered by radio host and libertarian fellow traveler Larry Elder. As the debate unfolded the questions consisted of too much historical and philosophical minutia seemingly tailor-made to make Libertarians seem hopelessly eccentric to a national audience, far too little dealing with the news and concerns of the 2016 election. 

Whoever wrote the questions did the Party, in my judgment, a great disservice. [UPDATE: Elder tells me via Twitter that he wrote them himself.]

A C-SPAN audience did not need to see the five candidates pondering out loud whether drivers licences are legitimate. (Among other challenging questions that could serve no other purpose but to embarrass the Party and its candidates in the eyes of any random cable viewer were such pressing, burning 2016 presidential campaign questions so often thrown at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as: would you have fought World War I? II? Apologized for bombing Hiroshima? Voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Do you think drivers need to be licensed? Should it be a crime to sell heroin to 5-year-olds? I'm enough of a movement veteran that these things just flowed by me at the time, but in retrospect they seem the worst sort of hectoring irrelevances designed to make the Party's candidates seem like eccentric loons.)

A lot was said in two hours. Feldman, who I'd previously ignored in my convention coverage, delivered a standard middle-ground Libertarian activist set of opinions, but expressed in often funny jokes, ending in his closing statements in a barn-burning rap in which he referenced every type of Libertarian activist and all his presidential opponents.

Darryl Perry delivered straight-up passionate anarchism, with the state always the wrong answer to every problem. In talking to a couple of handfuls of delegates after the debate, it seems likely Perry will probably do better on the first presidential ballot than many might have guessed. He seemed a favorite freak-flag-fly choice for delegates who don't expect him to survive that many ballots or be the nominee. Feldman's good humor and solid Libertarianism will earn him a fair number of first ballot votes as well.

Even among people who don't love Gary Johnson, I found few people who swore they'd never vote for him. If it comes down to him and any other single opposition, it still seems likely to me that he will win. Austin Petersen, who declaimed a vivid and hardcore vision of libertarianism tonight, turns lots of voters off with what is perceived as arrogance, I found. 

But the most interesting story coming out of the debate is the degree to which Gary Johnson was simultaneously the most strongly disliked, or disapproved of, candidate while still seeming the favorite of more than any other single candidate. No one got more, and more sustained, boos than Johnson did, for various departures from movement orthodoxy.

Some of them seemed understandable reactions of a guy who has had experience in the world of "real politics" and knows what will and won't fly. There is zero percentage to be gained in the actual world of normal American voters to be openly against drivers licenses, and it's a damn shame the question was even asked.

Johnson's description of the core of libertarianism as "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" seems to weary the serious convention crowd. That a core part of his quick discussion of immigration involves the idea that an immigrant should "pay taxes" doesn't seem to thrill everyone either. Johnson said he first was satisfied with a "get government out of marriage" solution to gay or plural marriage debates, but decided that the concept of marriage was so tied in to so many laws that it was better to just take a "government shouldn't discriminate" solution. He boldly and simply stated that he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which drew boos, as did his heretical opinion that drivers licenses might be a legitimate state function.

He showed a foreign policy vision that, while also clearly more in the main of conventional American politics, seemed legitimately disturbing to Libertarians. He was very much against the Iran nuke deal, insisting that unfreezing their assets will merely lead to more terrorism, leaving unanswered the question of what efforts the U.S. should go to to ensure that Iran never becomes a nuclear power.

He more or less openly called for war against North Korea, in alliance with China. He was unwilling to condemn the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. He unqualifiedly discussed the threat of Islamic terrorism without discussion of U.S. interventionist role in Middle East in possibly exacerbating the problem. (He was smart enough to simply say "I don't know" to silly questions about whether he'd have entered World War I and II, though others were willing to condemn World War I at least.) Johnson generally seemed willing to rethink U.S. troop commitments in Europe and other spots across the globe at least, but he sees threats demanding action in more places than most Libertarians.

Johnson garnered lots of boos by claiming that the free market is killing coal; he didn't really adequately explain what he meant by that, though it might have had to do with the price of natural gas falling. But a large part of the crowd seemed both annoyed at any admission that global warming might be a problem requiring government action, and annoyed at the idea that anything other than regulations were keeping coal down. Saying he imagined replacing the income and corporate taxes he hopes to eliminate with a FairTax style consumption tax annoyed a crowd more primed to just hear that "taxation is theft"—though Johnson has learned enough about dealing with Libertarian crowds to use that phrase too.

His favored technique was linking any question to some actual experience as governor of New Mexico, to remind delegates that this executive thing was natural to him. It isn't always clear most Libertarian delegates want to hear about real world experience as opposed to a passionate or smart expression of core libertarian philosophy. He did win cheers for openly calling for legalizing all drugs, but boos for admitting that some provision would need to remain in the law against supplying drugs to children.

In his closing statements, Johnson dealt quietly with the question of whether he was libertarian enough for the Libertarians. He admitted openly that he likely was not the most libertarian candidate they could pick, but that he believed he was the one this year who could get them the most attention and votes.

A delegate with the Montana delegation named Dorn was contemptuous of what he called the "cult" of marching sign wavers following what he considered a statist candidate, Johnson, though he admitted he could support Johnson if he were the Party's pick. From various conversations, it became clear that Johnson's pick of former Massachusetts governor William Weld as his vice president gained him little love from the delegates, though many were resigned to picking Weld if Johnson wins the presidency just to give him what he wants.

After the debate, Johnson's campaign manager Ron Nielson said Johnson is always "trying to be the same and not pander. He's not going to satisfy every libertarian on every issue, but will probably be the most effective" at bringing his message to the mass public. Neilson thinks Gary's general likeability will be a plus, even if some delegates are attracted by what they see as the fresh energy of a Petersen or a McAfee.

But Nielson, while by no means taking anything for granted, seems reasonably confident about what might happen Sunday when the Party votes for its president and vice president. If they win, their immediate needs are continuing to capitalize on the earned media that they have been drowning in since the Weld for vice president announcement and the convention, and take it from there.