Gary Johnson

How Last Night's Gary Johnson/William Weld CNN Town Hall Was a Disappointment in Libertarian Terms


The Libertarian Party presidential ticket of former Republican governors Gary Johnson (N.M.) and William Weld (Mass.) succeeded in seeming human, humane, decent, calm, and at least compared to their major party competitors, thoughtful this evening at their second CNN Town Hall.

Johnson/Weld Campaign

But I'm not sure they succeeded in seeming very Libertarian, or selling the Party's position as a distinct outlook on politics and government that someone could grasp and understand.

They often seemed to go out of their way to just seem like a centrist, independent mixture of what someone might see as good aspects of both other parties.

In fact, when host Anderson Cooper would occasionally remind the candidates what the traditional libertarian stance was, often relying on the Party platform, he might have done more to sell libertarianism's unique stances than the candidates.

Herewith, a (not necessarily comprehensive) list of places where a Libertarian might have been frustrated with the candidates tonight, with a few (again, not comprehensive) nods to when they got it closer to right. The emphasis, though, will be on the disappointments, which dominated in my eyes.

  • Weld repeating the notion that they would fill their administration with "the best people from the Democrats…the smartest from the Republicans" though he was smart enough to add his own Party as third in the list. This implies, against evidence, that there are somehow loads of politicians or "public servants" from the major parties that actually understand and can be relied upon to pursue libertarian policies; but he framed the issue as if it were more about bipartisan (or tripartisan) cooperation as a good in and of itself than pursuing a particular vision of what government should do and how.
  • While optimism about the wonders of an even hobbled and restricted market and technology, and cheering the huge moral progress in acceptance of more types of people in the polity, is a constitutive part of a huge strain of modern libertarianism, Johnson saying that "life has never been better" without any specifics about how things might need to improve (while alluding to only one surviving problem, discrimination) elided any chance to explain a core part of the libertarian message: that government does more than it ought to, morally or practically, and that that needs to change. For the most part, Johnson's answer made it sound like he just wanted to be a decent middle-of-the-road defender of an absolutely amazing and never-been-better status quo. This is a complicated issue, and he hit only one (important) side of it.

    Weld made this worse by alluding to that awful bugaboo of every useless "centrist third party" movement in my lifetime, the supposed tragedy of ferocious partisanship "getting in the way of effective policy being made."

  • Weld stressing their tenure as successful Republican governors of states with Democratic legislatures as just about their wonderful ability to "compromise" again does not seem like people even trying to sell a distinct message of government size and purpose, even though Weld did start with his sort-of-inspirational re-quip from 1992 about keeping government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom. (It was also good of Weld to point out the huge tax hikes involved in Clinton's plans.)
  • The best they managed in outlining what was supposed to be a distinctively libertarian foreign policy was being against regime change, which even Trump manages, without any larger sense of what America's mission in the world is and whether any sort of warwaging overseas is either in our interest or just or affordable.

    It was decent of Weld to stress that the actual domestic threat of terror could and should be dealt with as a law enforcement matter, even if he was perhaps too gleeful in calling for how much more spending would be necessary to do so, but it would be worth it. But he was far too casually supportive of the idea that drones would be necessary for those "ISIS training platforms in South Yemen." It didn't sound like Weld's notion of what to do in the Middle East differed in any significant respect from the Obama status quo.

  • Good of Johnson to stick to the idea that trying to ban semi-automatic weapons would be hopeless given their wide presence, but would have also been good of him to hit on how it would also be pointless toward solving any actual national problem, and very, very wrong to boot.
  • Johnson continues to awkwardly meld his winning dislike of discrimination, and even his winning dislike of associating libertarianism with bigotry, but again continues to miss the point that there is a difference between not wanting to discriminate and punishing people legally for their associative choices, and leaning on "existing law" isn't a sufficiently smart way through the problem.
  • Johnson's talks about research into CBD and whole-plant pot as medicine was interesting, but drug warrior woman Diane Carlson (and more importantly the audience) needed to hear more about why criminalizing pot has been a national disgrace and nightmare, not just the possible scientific benefits of varying approaches to the plant as medicine. Again, an opportunity to talk distinct principle was dribbled away.
  • A total bouquet to Johnson for following through on something he promised in an interview with me back before he won the nomination: that he'd be willing to tell the American people that government just cannot guarantee that terror attacks won't occur domestically and can't promise to eliminate them.
  • A half-bouquet to Johnson for a stumbling but in the right direction answer to Sanders supporter Robyn Summers on the differences between redistributive equality (bad) and equal opportunity to succeed and how the political system can muck up the latter.
  • Weld went out of his way to give an unlibertarian answer to the question of what he thinks of Black Lives Matter, and even flagged the point himself, saying we must "concentrate the power of government to make sure there are jobs available" and that that is a "national emergency to which government has to respond, libertarian or no libertarian."
  • The prostitution answer was a perfect set up for some basic libertarian philosophizing, which they messed up badly; Johnson by saying that in his opinion the "victims" in prostitution are the prostitutes themselves (while also giving lip service to Nevada's legalization and claiming to believe the L.P. platform's bold statement against victimless crimes when Cooper read it) and Weld outright saying that in his prosecutorial experience, and I don't really know what he meant exactly, that it's "far from victimless"and that the public's the loser and we "can't see the crime being committed when it happens." [UPDATE: I've read others interpret Johnson comment far more charitably than I did, insisting he meant that in the current environment where it is illegal that prostitutes are victims, presumably of the law. This is possible, though I didn't read it that way and not sure every viewer would.]
  • When Cooper congratulated Johnson for his willingess to say he might be wrong and hedge his observations with "perhaps," a more consistently thoughtful libertarian could have spun that into an opportunity to talk about the fatal conceit (not necessarily using that egghead term) of big government and its pretense to understand how to make all the right choices for us and use force and other people's money to back up their hubris. Johnson did nothing close to that.
  • Johnson muffed a chance to make a point about government's proper role by praising Michelle Obama's diet busybodyism and promising to "lead by example" in a way that an uneducated watcher would assume that Johnson totally believes it's part of government's job to worry about our weight.

The two governors mostly seemed thoughtful, humble, decent, not aggravating control freaks or rampaging ids. They did not seem like bold representatives of a distinct philosophy and practice of government, one with a well-developed philosophy about what government is for, and why.