One of the questions about the Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson is whether he can inspire people in a politically conventional manner.
Sure, we've have presidents who are wet blankets, but we need an "inspirer in chief," don't we?
Well, no actually: Think about Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush—that is, most recent presidents excepting John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. None was a mover of crowds in any considerable way and yet each managed to win at least one presidential campaign. Still, there persists this media desire for somebody who will at least shoot a tingle up the leg of reporters, if not jes' plain folks. And on this score, Johnson is nobody's All American.
As Eli Lake recently wrote at Bloomberg View in a scathing (and, IMO, inaccurate) appraisal of the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, "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."
For a different evaluation of Johnson's impact on people, check out this interesting new profile written by Ben Birnbaum at Politico. Birnbaum embedded with the Johnson campaign for a good chunk of the summer so far and does an excellent job of capturing the moods and moments of a long-shot, underdog campaign. Johnson, observes Birnbaum is "free-spirited and highly distractable…[he] evokes the innocence of a kid that likes to color outside the lines, projects warmth and neuroticism—a combination that makes him both highly approachable and equally difficult to imagine as commander-in-chief."
But it's also true that Johnson can in fact work a crowd. Birnbaum recounts walking the streets of Cleveland with the candidate during the Republican National Convention, as Johnson moved toward the Quicken Arena, where the convention was taking place:
As we move closer to the vicinity of the RNC, the trickle slowly escalates into a downpour and I give up on even trying to count the raindrops; Johnson is mobbed seemingly every minute by millennials asking for selfies, Baby Boomers telling him he has their vote, and—at one point—by two young veterans who ask Johnson if he's willing to be filmed doing 22 pushups with them for a wounded-warriors charity (Johnson hands Tom his coat and drops to the floor with the men). Johnson keeps his sunglasses on for most of the day, but there is no escape. When we stop at a table outside a Starbucks and I go inside, I hear two men chatting near the window. "Is that that Gary Johnson guy?" one friend asks the other, doing a double take. "Oh yeah, that is him," he says, taking out his phone to snap a photo. "Saw him on CNN this morning."
And Birnbaum recounts Reason TV's Facebook Live stream (embedded below) conducted the same day in the same vicinity, right out on the street:
Within 10 minutes, the crowd has mushroomed to more than 100. I walk over to [a campaign staffer] and ask if he's seen a spontaneous crowd this big. His eyes are darting around; he seems unnerved by the suddenness of it all. "Not this big," he says. As Johnson finishes the interview, the crowd erupts in a chant—"GARY! GARY! GARY!"—and Joe has to play blocking back to prevent the candidate from being mobbed. What's remarkable throughout all this is that Johnson does not experience a single hostile encounter. He is, to be sure, still a stranger to the vast majority of Americans; but those that do know enough about him to form an opinion seem to like him.
There's a good reason for that, which flies in the face of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two most-disliked presidential candidates in documented history (each has disapproval ratings that range close to two-thirds of Americans). Trump is an unregenerate bully and blowhard whose policy prescriptions are even uglier than his resting bitch face. For her part, Clinton has been a divisive figure for her entire public career, in large part thanks to her paranoia and penchants for secrecy, self-pity, and scandal. Like Trump, many of her specific policies—her hawkishness, for instance, and her trade protectionism—are widely disliked too. In contrast, Johnson comes across not only as a truly decent human being but as someone who reflects the broadly libertarian sensibilities of many, if not most, Americans. He's socially liberal and fiscally conservative, which may not be a precise definition of libertarian, but it's a pretty good working definition in the realm of politics. Don Knotts clone or not, Johnson is a good guy with good ideas at the right time. As Birnbaum writes:
Almost accidentally, [Johnson] the candidate has become 2016's last remaining bearer of a whole set of modern conservative ideals from free trade to entitlement reform; some top Republicans wary of Trump have already declared for him and many more are leaning toward doing so. At the same time, Johnson's anti-war foreign policy and liberal stances on social issues have resonated among Bernie Sanders stragglers. And lastly, his message of bipartisanship—or, rather, tripartisanship—is attracting independents frustrated with an increasingly dysfunctional two-party system. To capitalize on this perfect strom, Johnson's campaign has a game plan, a clearly targeted set of states to nail down that—if all the chips fall their way—could upend the election and, in their vision, land Johnson and Weld in the White House.
Whether that general package of person and ideas makes it into the presidential debates or throws the election into the House of Representatives (I'm not convinced either outcome is likely) is besides the point. For the first time pretty much ever, there's a libertarian politician who is not simply lecturing audiences on the ins and outs of classical liberal philosophy but actually presenting a viable, if long-shot, alternative to the two-party status quo in a presidential race. The interest in his general policy approach will not disappear after November. Indeed, regardless of whether Trump or Clinton is the next president, the desire for SOMETHING DIFFERENT—specifically, something libertarian as Johnson has defined the term—will only continue to grow.
Here's Gary Johnson, live from streets of Cleveland during the RNC. Go here for more Facebook Live streams from Reason TV.