Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson and Libertarians as the Sane Centrists in a Mad Election


Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson's overarching strategy seems less about pushing the farthest edges of his Libertarian Party's platform, but presenting himself and his vice presidential running mate, fellow former Republican governor William Weld, as sane centrists of a sort in an insane presidential year.

Gage Skidmore/Foter

In Politico yesterday, Johnson wrote an essay explaining and introducing himself to their audience in which he certainly mentions that the "fundamental premise" of the L.P. is "freedom" and that "every man and woman has the right to choose what to do with their time, their talents, and their lives."

But rather than traveling to the more outre places that principle can lead, he summons merely the spirit of "fiscal conservativism, together with respect for people with different lifestyles. Government must live within its means, and we have to respect one another's freedoms" and lauds his personal own business record.

Johnson attacks both Trump and his running mate, Indiana's Mike Pence, in the essay for their records of "division" and "exclusion" and Trump's "character assaults" and "serial attacks on opponents and climbing to the top by hurting people." Johnson notes Trump's trade and immigration policies seem animated by that spirit.

He hopes that the Trump Republican Party will prove to be the Whigs of the 21st century, destroying their coalition and leading many out of the Republican Party and to the L.P.

Johnson wants the Politico reader to think of he and Weld not as freedom radicals per se, but as offering "an honest, principled and sane alternative to the madness that we see in two so-called mainstream political parties….Americans…want and deserve simple, straightforward and good government."

To the alert, I think a fair case can be made that even radical libertarianism is simple, straightforward, and good compared to the major parties' offerings of endless debt, management, and control, though there is little concrete evidence the American people en masse are ready to grasp that.

That tack of painting himself and Weld as less about the farthest reaches of the L.P. platform and more about a record of reasonable fiscal conservatism and tolerance may annoy some Libertarians, but they are not his natural audience right now, which he seems to understand.

And that tack seems to have worked at least a bit on the editorial board of major American newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, who met with Johnson and Weld yesterday and wrote both an editorial and a small article of quotes based on the interview.

In the editorial, they were very complimentary toward Johnson, but largely because of a sane centrism, not radical libertarianism. They start off noting that if Donald Trump could against all expectations at the start end up the Republican nominee, than old "common sense" guesses about what might happen in November might be off, and a significant third party showing is worth contemplating. "We won't again underestimate the voters' ability to shock," the unsigned editorial says.

Here's how the Libertarians impressed the Trib editorial board: "Johnson and Weld aren't running as anti-government-free-will Libertarians with a capital L. They are agile, practical-minded thinkers with a few quirks: Conservative on money issues, socially liberal, skeptical of government power and military entanglements. Not so scary, right? 'Most people are Libertarian,' Johnson told us. 'It's just that they don't know it."

Some of the specific views the Trib board gleaned: "The federal government is an obstacle to prosperity and an inefficient problem-solver, Johnson posited. He's inclined to shut down or pare back agencies such as education and commerce and direct that money to the states. He wants a balanced budget. To preserve Social Security, he'd raise the retirement age and apply a means test….The most radical notion Johnson floated isn't so radical: He favors legalizing marijuana, noting that it's happening already. He won't risk alienating voters by calling for the legalization of heroin, for example; he does support ideas like needle exchanges that save lives.

Johnson was anti-interventionist, and apparently too much so for them:

Concerning the war on terror, Johnson sounded cautious, fretting about the "unintended consequences" of trying to save the world. Said Weld about American troops in Afghanistan: "When should they come home — never? We have to leave 8,400 troops there because we decided to do what the British Empire and Russian empire decided to do and failed miserably?" We would disagree, but appreciated the directness of his answer.

Some within the L.P. community worried that Johnson and Weld were functioning as carpetbaggers, politicians who really just wanted to run an independent campaign but needed to pick up the best Third Party structure for ballot access around, the L.P.

When Johnson and Weld talk about, as they often do, how their governing philosophy in some senses combines the best elements of both major parties (the whole "fiscally conservative and socially tolerant" mantra) and when Weld suggests, as he did to the Tribune, that their administration would "propose to hire, ideally, if elected, the very best minds of the Democratic Party, the very best minds of the Republican Party. And [Congress] would know that half our people were of their party, so they might take it a little better than if we were giving them a sermon…they might look and see some familiar faces that they'd known before from their own party" it doesn't exactly allay those fears.

But Johnson has been consistent in saying he doesn't like to push the farthest ends of the Party platform, just as he told a press conference at the May L.P. nominating convention in Orlando. He said he'll seek instead to move intelligently and strategically in a more libertarian direction.

For example, despite being the bold politician to first pioneer supporting pot legalization as governor of New Mexico in the 1990s, and despite the Party platform advocating full drug legalization, Johnson does not want to advocate legalizing other drugs (though he told me over and over in Orlando that he thinks it would be a better world if we did, but apparently does not believe there is any political value to pushing for it right now). When it comes to government income redistribution, Johnson apparently told a questioner at FreedomFest last weekend that he finds a universal basic income at the very least preferable to the current welfare system, and wouldn't rule it out as an idea.

Reason contributor and syndicated columnist Steve Chapman is on the Tribune board, and was in on the meeting. He is reasonably certain that this is the first time his fellow board members have been intrigued enough by an L.P. choice to call them in for an interview like this. At least one thing Johnson said clearly connected them with a larger libertarian movement, despite Weld's talk about staffing the administration with Democrats and Republicans: Johnson told the board that his main source of foreign policy wisdom was the Cato Institute (matching things he's told me as well).

Chapman agreed that "the libertarian philosophy was not terrible overt in this meeting. I don't think a doctrinaire libertarian, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, would have found it very encouraging."

But Chapman understands the position that the L.P. ticket is now in. "They are not trying to assure anybody that they are libertarian purists," he says. "What they are trying to do is present themselves as a serious, sober, and not radical option. I think they are more intent about making themselves palatable to a mainstream electorate than making sure libertarians are happy with them."

And Chapman says that they did indeed seem to convince his fellow board members that they were "serious, intelligent people…not crazy ideologues."