"Oh, you're the talent" said the guard in the parking lot for Jimmy Kimmel Live last night as Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson announced himself.
This particular "talent," if current polls are any indication, is about to do more for the public profile and vote-grabbing power of the Libertarian Party, by a vast margin, than anyone ever has. That's indeed some talent.
At that same time, Johnson is ready to leave the political battle after serving as the soldier "first over the hill," as he puts it, in the war for Libertarian respectability.
"I'm not going to have a future as a candidate. This is my swan song," Johnson said in an interview conducted in the drive from his 554-attendee Hollywood rally yesterday afternoon to his appearance on Kimmel.
"Staying active politically, that interests me, and I hope to have an impact politically. But not as a candidate. That's done."
It's not that the experience has been hostile or miserable for Johnson. When I ask if he's noticed any standard issues that make people he meets on the trail resistant to him, he denies encountering resistance at all, except with the hoary "wasted vote" argument.
The perennially chill Johnson insists he "takes great umbrage with that notion. A wasted vote is voting for someone you don't believe in." He's proud that his strong polling among millennials, independents, and active military personnel means he's "offering them their first vote for something they can truly get behind."
In his experience, Johnson says, "people care about everything and want to hear about everything" in his policy grab bag, an opinion reflected in his wide-ranging half-hour stump speech he gave to a very enthusiastic and young-skewing crowd at Hollywood's Boulevard 3 nightclub space on Sunset Boulevard, a venue commonly used for showbiz afterparties, just a few blocks from the storied corner of Hollywood and Vine.
What Johnson hears most often, he says, is: "Holy cow, you know what? I agreed with everything that guy had to say, or 90 percent of it."
And Johnson thinks that this sort of agreement with his "pragmatic" version of the Libertarian message is going to mean great things for the L.P. down the line, with or without him. (He insists that in areas where Libertarians think he doesn't go far enough, it's not that he disagrees with their values, but that "I think if you start talking about end goals that are completely unachievable…how about a goal that is achievable but gets you closer to the end result? You've heard me say that before. It's pragmatic.")
He then adds, almost as an aside, that any way it might "turn out to be a complete fallacy that you could actually get elected [president] as a third party."
That sounded a little sour, I suggest. "Not sour, no," he corrects me. It's like the old Gandhi adage. "First they ignore you, well, I've experienced that. They they make fun of you, OK, I sure went through that phase. Then they attack you. I'm now in that phase. Hey, that's not fun but that's the process by which you win, and in my case maybe not win election but Libertarians will win in upcoming cycles and maybe I contributed to that.
"My prediction is there are going to be a slew of former elected Democrats and former elected Republicans, that on the Democratic side are actually fiscally conservative and can finally shed that giveaway notion about government," he says.
"Then there will be all sorts of former Republican elected officials who would love to shed all that social dogma." These groups, Johnson says, will see the L.P. moving forward as a legitimate place to seek political office, "and the Libertarian Party is going to find itself in a position of, Holy cow! We got some real choices here."
This is based on his strong feeling that he's going to get the 5 percent needed to trigger both easier ballot access in many states, and the possibility of federal money for the Party.
As for voices in the Party who object to taking any public monies of any sort, Johnson thinks "they would be crazy not to." Starting off with, say, $20 million in the coffers would be a necessary equalizer for the Party. "Now, if Libertarians, if they want to disregard that, well, then the Libertarian Party is not ever going to be able to compete. This is what I think I'm going to be able to deliver to the Libertarian Party. What they do with it? That's a whole other…." His voice trails off.
It isn't necessarily going to cripple Libertarian momentum to have someone other than Johnson leading the political charge; while most of the rally attendees I spoke to said they did cotton to Johnson's personal aura of honesty and guilelessness, his support is more about ideas than fealty to the man himself.
After an enthusiastically received introduction from actor Brando Eaton (Awkward) (who spoke of how America achieved greatness as an example of freedom, not by shoving guns in other people's faces to force them to do things) Johnson gave his standard stump speech, about a half hour long.
It covers the wide waterfront of his policies, with some of the biggest applaud or cheer lines being his call for skepticism about military intervention, opposition to crony capitalism where government picks winner, term limits, pardoning Edward Snowden, and support for the Second Amendment. (Though Johnson continues to aggravate some Second Amendment fans by following that up quickly with the idea that we should be "open to debate" about ways to keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill and terrorists.)
Johnson delivered a smart extended take on how and why lack of consumer-visible price mechanisms in health care contribute to the health care cost crisis, far more detailed and educated than anything you're apt to hear from his major party opponents.
He is also unique compared to his competitors in being willing to discuss the looming entitlement cost crisis. As he told me in our interview after the rally, "it's not an option to not reform entitlements." Failure to grapple with it from his opponents "is politics as usual, about pandering and making promises and these promises are going to cost ultimately the downfall of the country because of the impending inflation that at some point is going to accompany all this."
Johnson thinks that Libertarians running the federal show "would have a unique opportunity to be able to say objectively that it is not an option to not deal with" entitlements. If they could make a run around how the major party politicians are "divided based on political affiliation…if you had Libertarians in there with a smile on their face" convincing them "we should objectively look at" real reform, "I think there would be an opportunity."
People come to Johnson because they think he matches their values or concerns, not because they think he's some policy genius whose instincts they must trust. Indeed, the first two people I talked to in the stretched-around-the-block line to get in to the event each had a bone to pick with him. Dege Coutee, a marijuana activist, thinks Johnson doesn't understand the implications of California's Proposition 64 on marijuana legalization and wishes he'd say out loud that it is not the right approach to legalization. (A handout Coutee gives me gripes that the proposition is "funded by billionaire supporters of Big Pharma & Monsanto" and objects to its "dozens of new taxes, fees and fines" and how it "overturns medical marijuana.")
In his stump speech, Johnson cheered Californians for their ability to legalize pot this year, which he insists will be a "tipping point" that will make legislators across the country go to direct legalization without ballot initiatives needed. Coutee tells me that most of the people she knows in the pot activist community still feel obligated to vote Clinton, from a sense that the Democrats tend more to their side than the Republicans.
The second person I met was Kevin Patten, who writes for the radical libertarian website Striketheroot. He is careful not to say he will necessarily be voting for anyone, but because of what he sees as Johnson's foreign policy ignorance and lack of a consistently sharp anti-intervention message, he says he's more likely to support Trump. (He thinks Trump's more of a sure thing to curb any looming conflict with Russia.) Patten pressed Johnson to say he definitely does not support a no-fly zone over Syria as he left the rally.
Most of the people I talked to in the audience had been on the Johnson train since before this election, many coming to the Libertarian Party via an initial interest in Ron Paul in 2008 or '12. All said they had a sense that awareness and interest in Johnson among their non-Libertarian friends was higher this year.
Aaron Bonn, who works in a law firm and says he was first attracted back in the mid-'00s to the idea of "the libertarian Democrat," says that most people he knows on that end of the spectrum are reluctant about Johnson over two major concerns: global warming and the idea that stopping Trump is a vital imperative.
Megan Seal, who works in graphic design and says she is "interested" in Johnson but not yet fully sold, admits many of her friends focus on the "Aleppo moment" to discount Johnson, though she detects a very widespread sense of systemic dissatisfaction with contemporary politics helping focus people outside the immediate Libertarian orbit on Johnson, and on other third party choices.
A sense of desperate urgency, that the fate of the Republic is at stake in this election, is not the sole province of those who think Clinton must beat Trump, or that Trump must beat Clinton. I talk with a trio of old friends from Beaumont, California, all of whom say they drifted or are thinking of drifting Libertarian from the Republican side. One of them is Fred King, an old Reagan fan who works in interactive marketing for health care and defense industries. He tells me he's willing to risk his business reputation by promoting Johnson online since he feels so much is at stake in this election.
An America that won't elect Johnson, he thinks, is abandoning the Constitution. "I think it's a tipping point for our country," King said. "If we don't make changes, don't have a conversation on the ethics and morals of the people we are voting for…if we are not standing for something, caring about actual facts, then where's your endpoint?"
The world, and the subset of the world that is these United States, presents itself to all of us as something more to be coped with and managed than something changeable by our own force of will and personality. Whether the U.S.A. stands as a place where people live, work, consume, succeed, and fail with roughly the level of peace, order, and prosperity it's used to, or is about to collapse into systemic chaos, well, it's a bit out of any individual hands.
Our Democratic republic with freedom of speech and of the press give us space on the margins to try to shape it as we'd prefer, generally by convincing other people that we are right about how we should govern and comport ourselves.
As Gary Johnson is in perhaps a better space to recognize than most us, even positions of such prominence as running for president of the United States on all 50 ballots leave us with less power than we might want, and it's important to recognize that. But "I really do think I've had a legit shot" and "despite how stacked it all is, you know what? This is a lot of attention that's been given."
When I first pressed Johnson about what he thinks and feels about how Evan McMullin has overtaken him and destroyed any chance of Johnson being a major player in McMullin's home state of Utah, he just tersely said: "It is what it is."
Later I return to the topic and he says a little more. "It's just that he's from Utah and he's a Mormon…..He's going to split the Republican vote in Utah to where Hillary's going to win."
I ask if he thinks the forces behind McMullin put him up with the intention of harming Johnson's chances. "Oh, you know, I don't know. I have no idea. It is what it is."
Then Johnson gets philosophical, and perhaps hits the wisest take on electoral politics for the libertarian-minded.
"What's the adage? If you let things that are completely out of your control make you go crazy, then you're going to go crazy."