Eight hours before he stepped on a CNN stage for a widely anticipated, strategically critical town hall appearance, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson explained to me why he was planning yet again to wear athletic sneakers to a formal event. "It's analogous to the Patriots' perfect season," he said.
Huh? Well, New England had gone 16-0 in the 2007 National Football League season then won its first two playoff games, all with head coach Bill Belichick wearing his nasty, trademark gray hoodie, Johnson explained. But under the bright lights of Super Bowl XLII, with the opportunity to make history, Belichick threw away what got him there, donned a shiny red sweatshirt instead, and the Patriots went on to lose in arguably the sport's greatest upset. Moral of the story: Don't go changing just because the venue does.
Well, so much for that. Near the tail end of Johnson's mostly frustrating, occasionally inspiring performance on CNN, moderator Chris Cuomo asked him about his footwear. It was then that I noticed for the first time that the mountain-climbing triathlete was wearing shiny dress shoes, just like a normal politician. "I always have sneakers on," Johnson stammered. "And I just—you know, everybody in my campaign is [saying] just don't blow it with the shoes."
It is possible that Gary Johnson blew it with the shoes. Or at least overthought his approach to the point of straying away from what's gotten him polling consistently at 9 percent and rising. Johnson had two main goals going into what was effectively an electoral first date: He wanted to be "likable," and he wanted to be "pragmatic." Unfortunately, the effort to embody the former tended to undercut the latter.
That tension was particularly thick at the outset, when Cuomo kept trying to get the candidates to bash Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama. You could almost see a mini-Gary Johnson sitting on his shoulder, saying "Be nice! Be nice!"
Asked to react to Trump's characterization of Clinton as "the most corrupt person to ever run for president," Johnson didn't say, "No, but…" Instead, he said this: "That is not a view that I would embrace. I don't think either of us are going to engage in any sort of name-calling. We're going to keep this to the issues, and the issues are plenty." That was already the second time in the debate he had vowed to stick to issues that he didn't bother naming (despite the very rich vein of critiques centered only on Hillary Clinton's veracity).
Then came the most excruciating passage of the night:
CUOMO: All right. Governor Johnson, let's do some word association here. I'll say the name, you hit me with the first thing that comes to mind. Remember, we've got an audience here and a lot of people watching out there, as well. President Barack Obama?
JOHNSON: Good guy.
CUOMO: One. Governor Weld?
WELD: Barack Obama? I think he's been statesman-like the last couple of years. He had a disappointing first term, and I think he's picked up his game the last couple of years. It's gone better for him.
CUOMO: Hillary Clinton?
JOHNSON: Hillary Clinton, a wonderful public servant, I guess I would say that.
WELD: Old friend. Nice kid. Knew her in her 20s. We shared an office in the Nixon impeachment, real bond, lifelong. Seriously. Not kidding.
You are less than 10 minutes into the most important introduction to voters of this campaign, one in which differentiating yourself from the existing big-party competition is kind of the point, and you can't do any better than this?
Johnson has long and genuinely said that he doesn't do personally negative campaigning, and on his effective days he then pivots to talking about his opponents' various terrible policies, which allows him to be simultaneously nice and cuttingly honest, and away we go. The "wonderful public servant" phrase for Hillary was recited as if in a hostage video; he could have said "the best example of why we shouldn't measure policies by their stated intentions" in about the same amount of breath.
There's a seemingly trivial media truth here that is nonetheless important when you've taken the trouble to run for president. And that is, you don't have to play by the TV person's rules. Reducing entire opinions of complex politicians into one-word answers is super stressful, intentionally distorting, and kind of dumb. There really are more important things for a Libertarian to say about President Obama than whether he's a "good guy," and these more-than-one-word treatments serve the important dual purpose of alerting strangers proactively to your political values.
Instead, Johnson spent too much time communicating his values defensively, sometimes confusingly, while failing repeatedly under cross-examination to draw clarifying distinctions between the theoretically ideal and the politically plausible. Given that libertarians and Libertarians alike, quite unlike Democrats, Republicans, progressives or conservatives, are constantly being asked to take their foundational ideas to their logical and most extreme conclusion, deftly navigating the theoretical/pragmatic divide is a survival necessity out there in the media jungle. This burden falls especially on those of us who live in libertarian squishville, trying to talk the Normals into ever more radical positions, in part by not coloring too far outside the lines.
Johnson had a hard time last night keeping these distinctions sorted. The guy famous for being the first major national politician to favor the legalization of marijuana found himself awkwardly emphasizing that the L.P. ticket isn't calling for legalizing heroin, but then instead of really explaining the pragmatic reasons why he's stopping at pot, he devoted the bulk of his answer talking up the benefits of heroin harm-reduction in places like Zurich and Vancouver. Sure, nobody enjoys taking hostile policy questions from the mother of a drug casualty, and yes, Johnson eventually managed in two minutes to articulate more truth about the dangers of prohibition than you'll hear in two years on Hannity, but there's an unnecessary defensiveness about applied libertarianism that makes such answers end up sounding evasive.
You can say, while still being perfectly likable and pragmatic, that you're legalizing pot now because it's politically within reach and also by far the largest illegal drug of choice; and that you sincerely hope such legalization eventually triggers similar conversations about other drugs, but until we get there, here are some sensible harm-reduction measures we could take today. Libertarianism, when placed in contact with lived-in political reality, is going to look mighty different than it does at a Liberty Forum weekend. Professional Libertarians need not always take up the invitation to wave the policy magic wand; part of pragmatism is being humble enough to recognize that the majority of policymakers are going to disagree with you.
Asked by a witness to the horrific Orlando massacre about guns on the very first question, Johnson hemmed and hawed and declared openness to discuss policy, and otherwise sounded cagey and not particularly libertarian…until he stuck a perfectly Libertarian landing about expanding gun prohibition to people on government watchlists: "I think that these lists are subject to error," he said simply.
There were moments of fluency in the debate. Johnson was on firm footing talking about injecting more market policy into health care. He pointed out that "Look, nobody is addressing the fact that there does need to be reform to Social Security, there does need to be reform to Medicaid and Medicare." He and Weld spoke forthrightly about the disasters of U.S. military intervention. And Weld was almost dazzlingly comfortable in his own skin, towering over Johnson in confidence and poise.
Libertarians, as is their wont, were a bit over the top with despair at the performance last night. "A straight cock punch to anyone with two brain cells and a belief in human liberty," Tweeted Reason contributor Jeff A. Taylor. "More horrible than imagined. LP is dead."
But it's probable that we are well and truly not the target audience. Johnson and Weld are fighting for the broad sweet spot of "fiscally conservative and socially inclusive," which is a bloc much bigger than mere Libertarians (or libertarians), and one that just does not have a logical home anymore in either of the two major parties. In a season dominated by widely disliked, government-aggrandizing sociopaths, maybe just showing up and seeming nice and qualified enough will go farther than drawing airtight distinctions between different flavors of libertarianism.
But only with the right shoes.