Gary Johnson Has an 'Aleppo Moment' (His Unfortunate Words) on MSNBC
Asked by Chris Matthews to name a foreign leader he admires, the Libertarian blanks out.
Right before I interviewed him at the Libertarian National Convention in May and again before his CNN townhall in June, Gary Johnson made the same odd comment to me (this is a paraphrase): "Matt, I'm so sorry that it's me up there defending libertarian ideas instead of you people who have been speaking about it so eloquently for so long!" He made a similar comment to longtime Libertarian activists just after accepting their nomination in Orlando. Aside from being an expression of his endearing-for-a-politician humility, the pre-apologies pointed to a central paradox of the Johnson campaign: His strategy has been laser-focused on getting into the presidential debates, and yet as a communicator, he is uneven, goofy around the edges, and prone to the occasional WTF moment.
Oh sure, you can come up with some caveats and whataboutisms here. I don't know who my favorite foreign leader is either! NPR and Salon and all the rest are unfairly mischaracterizing this as Johnson being "unable to name a foreign leader"! There's scant evidence that the voting public cares about foreign-policy gotcha moments, particularly in this of all campaign seasons! Also, what about Hillary Clinton's warmongering and Donald Trump's incoherent Mideast bluster!
All of that may be interesting, but it doesn't change the fact that Gary Johnson screwed up bigly here, because this is who Gary Johnson is. A partial list of self-inflicted errors in this exchange:
1) If you don't like or can't answer a question in a live broadcast situation, don't answer the damned question. The English language is filled with little sidestepping phrases like, "Well, the most important thing is," or "When you step back and take the broader view…." Also available are the Pushback ("Chris, I'm not playing your foreign policy trivia game"), the Shutdown ("It's not appropriate for a presidential aspirant to pre-emptively name international favorites"), and the Redirect ("I'm more focused on rolling back our friendship with dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia!"). Not a viable option for a potential commander in chief? Stammering out loud about your own inability to answer a question.
2) The phrase "Aleppo moment" is wrong for several obvious reasons. Starting with, Aleppo is a city where a lot of people are dying—imagine someone using terminology such as "Sarajevo moment," or "Darfur moment"; feels icky and wrong. Also, it's a self-inflicted callback to one of the campaign's lower points.
3) Neither "Vincente Fox" nor "Angela Merkel" are good answers, either. If you're gonna go former office-holder, there are no shortage of legitimate heroes to choose from (I would start with Václav Havel, who served contemporaneously with Fox). As for Merkel, she hasn't had what you would call a particularly good year.
Look, you can rage that the questioning was somehow unfair, or at least that the way people will seize on it will be. But part of running for president is showing people—live, on TV, constantly, to the point of mental and physical exhaustion—that you are nimble enough on your feet to deal with a brainfart without saying "Hey look, we're having a brainfart over here!" Libertarians and other marginalized groups have a weird man's burden in which they are frequently held to even higher standards than the two-party dolts who actually hold power, but the response to that is to gratefully accept the challenge and then rise to the occasion, not be resigned to your own flaws.
After the first Aleppo moment, Gary Johnson warned that it wouldn't be the last one. He was right on the prediction, but wrong on the expectation. It sucks being interviewed and put on the spot all day long, and it must be hard for a small-state governor to grapple with the overlapping policy implications of a messed-up globe. But no one put a gun to Johnson's head and said "Run for president!" There's no reason not to do better than this.
ICYMI, here's my shaky-cam video (thankfully cleaned up and clarified by my colleagues) of Johnson going ballistic on his foreign policy expertise just minutes before the first presidential debate: