Election 2016

Can Gary Johnson Really Be the Commander in Chief?

#NeverTrumpers say "No way!" but they're already against him. More important, they're wrong.


McMullin For President Site

Just how desperate are #NeverTrump Republicans to find someone—anyone!—to vote for other than the official nominee of the Republican Party?

So desperate that once-serious powerbrokers such as William Kristol wasted his Memorial Day Weekend teasing out announcements about…a journalist and lawyer named David French, who turned down an endorsement to run for president from The Weekly Standard editor. More recently the Hail Mary pass has taken the human form of one Evan McMullin, a former House staffer and CIA hand who believes his "service has given me unique, firsthand knowledge of the threats our nation faces." As important as his being a warm body, McMullin is pro-military and anti-abortion. Given that the filing deadline has passed in 26 states, a strong grasp of planning doesn't seem to be a requirement for #NeverTrumpers when it comes to picking an alternative candidate.

The one person that renegade Republicans (who are mostly or all social conservatives and/or military hawks) absolutely refuse to consider is a former two-term Republican governor who will be on the ballot in all 50 states. The Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson served eight years in New Mexico, where he successfully pursued a small-government agenda by cutting taxes and slowing the growth of spending. He's joined on the LP ticket by another two-term Republican governor (who worked in the Reagan administration!), Bill Weld of Massachusetts, who pulled off similar semi-miracles in a different deep-blue state. Johnson is polling around 10 percent in national polls and is in striking distance of hitting the 15 percent minimum to make it into the presidential debates. Johnson and Weld have pledged to produce a balanced budget as their first order of business and they talk about cutting whole departments of the federal government while simplifying taxes and reducing regulations.

And still, #NeverTrump Republicans keep their eyes on the distant horizon, waiting for someone—anyone!—who might steal The Donald's thunder.

What gives? Let's be clear. #NeverTrump conservatives, especially social conservatives, view Johnson as a "nonstarter" (in the phrase of The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway) because he believes that a woman has a right to an abortion. Period, end of discussion. Most conservatives have effectively become single-issue voters, with abortion being a threshold question that comes first. If you believe in abortion, next. That is why every Republican politician is anti-abortion, regardless of whether they can effect any change in law (abortion rates are at their lowest since 1973, largely due to a decline in unwanted pregnancies). Johnson is actually a moderate when it comes to abortion. He says he is personally opposed to abortion but, like most Americans, he believes that abortion should be legal under some but not all circumstances. He broadly falls in line with the current legal strictures on abortion, which is that the state has no interest up to the point of viability of the fetus and then can take an increasing interest up through birth. As governor, he pushed to limit third-trimester abortions, which comprise less than 1 percent of abortions. He refuses to single out federal funding of Planned Parenthood, another conservative trip wire, for special opprobrium. From his campaign site:

Gov. Johnson recognizes that the right of a woman to choose is the law of the land, and has been for several decades. That right must be respected and despite his personal aversion to abortion, he believes that such a very personal and individual decision is best left to women and families, not the government. He feels that each woman must be allowed to make decisions about her own health and well-being and that the government should not be in the business of second guessing these difficult decisions.

Gov. Johnson feels strongly that women seeking to exercise their legal right must not be subjected to prosecution or denied access to health services by politicians in Washington, or anywhere else.

There is a limited-government philosophy at work there that conservatives and Republicans might readily ascertain, even if they don't care for the outcome in this particular instance.

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On the somewhat-related topic of religious expression in the workplace, Johnson has further disappointed conservatives and Republicans (and many libertarians, to be sure) by believing that current anti-discrimination laws should be extended to matters of sexual orientation. In a LP candidates debate hosted on Fox Business' Stossel show, Johnson hemmed and hawed before saying that, in the bizarre hypotethical case of a Jewish baker being forced to bake "Nazi wedding cake," the baker should have to comply. He doesn't believe that specifically religious institutions should be forced to serve all comers but if you open a business to the public, you should. You can take issue with that (as my Reason colleague Scott Shackford has), but Johnson has staked out a position that is hardly hostile to the expression and exercise of religion. As he explained recently in a newspaper op-ed, he favors the route that socially conservative Utah took:

The Utah compromise barred discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals in employment and housing. In addition, the Utah law requires the office of every county clerk to be available to solemnize same-sex unions. At the same time, the law provides reasonable protections for the freedoms of speech and association of bona fide religious organizations — and made the religious and LGBT protections inseverable.

If Johnson's stance on social issues makes him ineligible to many #NeverTrump Republicans and conservatives, his foreign policy stance rules out interventionists and hawks. In his 2012 LP run, Johnson was the only anti-war candidate of note and he continues to hit that note in 2016, stressing that U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century has accomplished very little while raining down huge amounts of death and destruction. Stop the bombings and the wars, focus on diplomacy and trade, remains his refrain, even as he insists on maintaining a strong military for defensive purposes. As much as abortion, this is as big a stumbling block to #NeverTrump Republicans. In late July, Bill Kristol tweeted that a vote for Johnson could be "a symbolic vote for the Constitution and against both demagogic authoritarianism and demagogic nanny statism" and that "you wouldn't (I think) feel that you'd have to take a shower after voting for him, unlike Trump and Clinton." In the end, though, Kristol, doubtless speaking for many "proudly 'pro-war'" Republicans, concluded that Johnson's non-interventionism was a bridge too far.

Writing for Bloomberg View, Eli Lake adds yet one more disqualification to which #NeverTrump types can point: He doesn't come across as commander-in-chief material:

You watch him on television. It's a disaster. Johnson is about as telegenic as an educational film about the metric system. He is a gangly ball of nerves who exudes the charisma of Don Knotts from his "Three's Company" years. He smiles when he shouldn't. When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, he offered a word salad of honest introspection, ending with: "For me personally, slap, slap wake up."…

They are voting for a commander-in-chief. And the former governor of New Mexico doesn't come off like a commander, a chief or a president of any kind. He comes off like the NASA scientist in the movie who briefs the president right before the meteor hits.

Here's the thing about that scientist. Everyone is happy that he is finally warning someone in power about the pending disaster. But he is still asked to leave the room when the president must decide what to do about it.

Let me note that I am quoted in the story and that Lake is a sometime-Reason contributor, a non-Republican, a friend, a hawk, and, I think, completely wrong here.

To the extent that Johnson doesn't come across as a smooth, unflappable politician, that's in his favor. In the wake of Barack Obama, as cool a character to sit in the White House, and George W. Bush, whose lack of felicity with words was matched by a total comfort with himself, do we need yet another leader that seems untouched and untouchable by the world around him? Just as we need a different politics in the 21st century—one that moves past irrelevant distinctions between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican—we need different types of politicians.

Despite the nastiness of the 2016 election, the most stunning thing so far is how both parties and both major-party candidates agree on things such as war (we need more of it), free trade (we need less of it), and spending (Hillary Clinton will raise spending from 22 percent of GDP to 22.7 percent; Donald Trump will take it to 22.5 percent). Both the Trump and Sanders insurgencies showed how played out the parties really are. Not only do record-low numbers of Americans identify as either Democrat or Republican (who can blame us?), the differences between the two parties are rapidly approaching a vanishing point. Yes, the Democrats are rhetorically kinder to immigrants, though their two-term leader has deported more immigrants than all presidents up to the year 2000 (and more than Bush did). Established prior to the Civil War, neither major party represents a clear ideological alternative to the other and, more important, they betray no interest in a forward-looking vision for the country. Rather, they seek to shore up institutions and practices and policies that have brought us only to a point of bankruptcy and record-low levels of trust and confidence in government. The Democrats want to expand the very entitlements that account for nearly 75 percent of (out-of-control) government spending while the Republicans want to preserve them (recall that the loudest GOP criticism of Obamacare was that it would gut Medicare). Whatever else you can say about Gary Johnson's platform, he is the only candidate calling for serious reductions in the size, scope, and spending of government. His battle cry "Uber everything!" at least suggests he is aware that he is living in the 21st century.

As important is his self-presentation. Yes, Johnson is not a bully or a shouter like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. He is not a master of artifice and doesn't channel a divine-right-of-kings vibe. Do we seriously need or want that in today's America and today's world? In the Black Lives Matter example that Lake cites above (it came up during CNN's Libertarian Town Hall with Johnson and Weld), Johnson's candor wasn't "word salad." He acknowledged that he—and many white or upper-class Americans—had not realized the extent to which minorities and poorer people were held to different, harsher standards by police when it comes to everyday life. It was a moment of empathy with an audience member that certainly didn't exist at either the Democratic or Republican national conventions. We need more of that in our leaders, not an end to it.

If libertarian (small L) politics are about recognizing that power is rapidly decentralizing and dispersing throughout the system (even as those in control desperately try to conserve it), we need to recognize that we need different types of elected officials. We don't need demagogues and messiahs, we need individuals who can facilitate and emobdy a smaller, less dictatorial government, one that doesn't push and shove us around but instead provides fewer services more effectively. As Lake quotes me:

"[Johnson's] disinterest or inability to take over every room he enters, should be extremely comforting and appealing to a country filled with responsible adult citizens." Gillespie added that Johnson won't push Americans around "like cattle or sheep," but rather will competently execute the functions of government, "exhorting us to pursue happiness in all the different ways we define that term."

What was it that Obama said at the DNC? Americans "don't look to be ruled." If we want to be a country of self-governing people, we need to act like adults and stop waiting around for the person who can deliver from every evil, don't we?

But what goes into the "commander-in-chief" role exactly? Johnson has more executive experience than Barack Obama had when he took over the U.S. military. He has more of that experience, too, than Hillary Clinton, whose "We came, we saw, he died" comments and laughter about Muammar Qaddafi are kind of, well, fucked up (as is her insistence that Libya remains an example of "smart power" at its most effective). Trump's apparent inability to control outbursts has already sent many #NeverHillary types into the Democrat's arms. There is no reason to believe that Gary Johnson, who is the most popular candidate among active-duty troops, wouldn't command respect on the national and world stage as president. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that he will follow through consistently and clearly on the foreign policy that he's articulated so far, which is likely to earn the respect and relief of the planet far more than either George Bush or Barack Obama did.

And yes, Johnson doesn't fit the mold cast for presidents in the 20th century. Which might actually be the point, given that the 20th century is history, and it's not coming back.