Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson stepped up his CNN townhall game last night, vastly improving on his disastrous previous performance.
This may come as something of a surprise, but his best answer was undoubtedly his response to a disaffected Bernie Sanders supporter who refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton but doesn't know whether she likes the libertarian philosophy.
Johnson said that he agreed with Sanders on about 70 percent of issues. That may seem like far too much ostensible overlap between libertarianism and socialism, but Johnson sold his point. Like Sanders, he supports gay marriage, abortion rights, drug legalization, and an end to military intervention, he said.
He acknowledged that he has a different economic philosophy than Sanders: in Johnson's worldview, trade and capitalism are good things. But he skillfully drew a distinction between free market, equal-opportunity capitalism and the toxic brand of corporate cronyism peddled by the Hillary Clintons and Donald Trumps of the world. I don't know whether Johnson will capture the vote of the person who answered the question, but it's no surprise that the Libertarian ticket seems to be pulling in more people from the left than from the right, given answers like this one.
Indeed, throughout the townhall, both Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, seemed far more comfortable courting anti-Clinton lefties than #NeverTrump Republicans—which is ironic, given that both men are former Republicans themselves. In particular, Johnson and Weld refused to throw any bones to social conservatives: they oppose religious freedom protections, a notable departure from libertarian doctrine.
The Johnson/Weld Libertarian Party is one that ignores the hardcore libertarian position to the extent that the hardcore libertarian position might alienate moderate voters—on prostitution, discrimination, and domestic terrorism, for example. They are recasting libertarianism as a centrist philosophy that rejects the extremism of both parties in favor of something that they believe is broadly popular with the American public: social tolerance and fiscal responsibility.
It's an interesting strategy, and one that may leave Johnson/Weld as the most appealing option to a vast cross-section of American voters who can't stomach Clinton or Trump. But I think the Libertarian candidates should go after #NeverTrump Republicans with greater fervor than they did tonight. The Republican Party failed to nominate a candidate who represents its values in any sense whatsoever. Johnson and Weld are welcome to preach their socially-liberal bona fides to the left, but they should also make a concerted effort to remind frustrated conservatives that there is a Republican on the ballot. He just doesn't have an (R) next to his name anymore.