Independent conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin, who is making enough waves in the historically Republican-dominated state of Utah that GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence is holding a rally there two weeks before Election Day, is once again championing his own libertarian bonafides in contrast to Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. McMullin, who is on 11 ballots compared to Johnson's 51, and who has never polled higher than 2 percent nationally (though he has almost never been polled), has given "3 Reasons Why He's a Better #NeverTrump #NeverHillary Vote Than Gary Johnson" to The Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine that has been as enthusiastic about the McMullin campaign as it has been hostile to libertarian ideas over the years.
Reason numero uno:
First, McMullin pointed out that Johnson is a poor protest vote for those who care about the Constitution. "Gary Johnson is not actually a libertarian," McMullin told TWS at a press event. "He has tax policies that are not libertarian, his stance on religious liberty is not libertarian." […]
McMullin is pro-life, while Johnson believes in a right to abortion. "If Gary Johnson were a real libertarian, I probably would not be in this race," McMullin said.
I caught up with Johnson this afternoon just after he had finished a Facebook Live video to promote his new book Common Sense for the Common Good: Libertarianism as the End of Two-Party Tyranny (read Brian Doherty's scan of it here), and asked him about McMullin's comments.
"Well, all I can point toward to on my libertarian bonafides is that I've been the nominee of the Libertarian Party two cycles," he said. "And that is the libertarian hardcore that…decides that. So I don't know how you can get any more bonafide than that."
(This answer was a milder echo of what Party Chair Nicholas Sarwark told me two weeks ago: "I trust the judgment of dedicated Libertarian Party members from around the nation somewhat more than that of an unremarkable Capitol Hill staffer with no purpose other than to split the Gary Johnson vote in the mountain West and assist in electing the Democrat for President…. The day I take advice on who's a real libertarian from a former CIA operative who was an insider in Washington and at Goldman Sachs, being propped up by dead-end neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and shameless Republican political consultants like Rick Wilson, is the day I'll resign as Chairman of the Libertarian Party.")
What about the religious-liberty charge, which has dogged Johnson throughout 2016? "I would have signed the Civil Rights bill of 1964, and I think that that's in essence what he is pointing out, that a real Libertarian would have vetoed that, or not signed it. I would have signed it."
Today the number of McMullin-qualifying states in which he has been publicly polled doubled from two (Utah and Virginia) to four, with the introduction of Minnesota and Idaho. In the Gopher State, the independent barely registered a blip in a Star-Tribune poll, tying the Green Party's Jill Stein at 1 percent, compared to Johnson's 6, Donald Trump's 39 and Hillary Clinton's 47. But in Idaho, the second-most Mormon state in the union (19 percent of the population, compared to Utah's 55 and Wyoming's 9), a new Emerson poll has McMullin beating Johnson 10.0 percent to 4.2 percent, while Trump stomps Clinton 52.3 percent to 23.3. McMullin polled 32 percent among Idaho Mormons, just behind Trump's 33; but received just 7 percent of the non-Mormon support.
I asked Johnson to what he attributed McMullin's regional success, and he just said "I couldn't guess." (In an interview last week with Brian Doherty, he said "It is what it is.")
After the jump, a deeper look at McMullin's more-libertarian-than-thou claims.
McMullin's critique of Johnson's allegedly deficient libertarianism continues to zero in on one questionable area of Johnson's ideal tax system—a federal consumption tax—while ignoring the extremely libertarian components of abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and federal corporate taxes, not to mention slashing enough government to submit a balanced budget on day one (thereby easing some of the pressure to raise taxes). McMullin, by contrast, sounds just like a standard-issue Republican, only even less likely to reduce taxes for the top earners:
He will make the tax code fairer and simpler, helping to spur business innovation, especially the growth of small businesses, which are the country's most important job creators. Small businesses should pay closer to 25 percent of their profits in taxes, whereas now there are many that must pay almost 40 percent. Right now America also has the highest corporate tax rate – 35 percent – of any advanced economy. Even Barack Obama has said that it should be substantially lower. Income tax rates also need to come down, especially for the middle-class; once the economy starts growing again at an acceptable rate, high-earners should also get a break.
What about foreign policy? The Weekly Standard, which acknowledges that "many non-interventionist libertarians could be turned off by McMullin's hawkish foreign policy," nevertheless soldiers on:
Second, McMullin pointed out that Gary Johnson is a poor choice for those casting a protest vote on the grounds that neither Trump nor Clinton is fit to be commander-in-chief. "I do believe that I'm prepared to lead this country. I know where Aleppo is. I've been to Aleppo," said McMullin, a former CIA counterterrorism agent. "We need to defeat ISIS."
"There's nothing honorable about not knowing who international leaders are or not being able to say that you respect any of them," he added.
Rather than rehash AleppoGaffeMania, or even get into a discussion about the comparative advantages of running both a state bureaucracy and a successful company, let's take a proactive look under the hood of McMullin's foreign policy ideas.
First, and most promisingly, McMullin—quite unlike the gang over at The Weekly Standard—opposed the war in Iraq. Here's how he put it in a recent National Interest essay:
[W]e must exercise leadership in a prudent way. One of the most important mistakes to avoid is the premature use of force. That is why I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As an intelligence officer who saw it firsthand, I believe the war was a tragic and expensive mistake. I say this even though I remain proud of my service in Iraq as an officer with the CIA. The valor, courage, and integrity displayed by American forces in Iraq were extraordinary. We overthrew a brutal tyrant and then fought a long war to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq. These were noble objectives but not sufficient justification for the cost of fighting.
Good start! But then it begins to deteriorate into some Goldilocks notion of finding a third way between Bush interventionism and alleged Obamaite retreats:
The great challenge we face today is how to reconcile the imperative of global leadership with the necessity of reining in its costs. Whereas the war in Iraq illustrates the dangers of doing too much, the myriad failures of the Obama administration demonstrate the costs of retreating into passivity and compromising our principles. If we had struck the Islamic State much earlier, before it spread across Syria and Iraq and before it beheaded American citizens, we could've crushed it at a much lower cost. Instead, we now have 5 thousand troops in Iraq while ISIS is launching attacks across Europe and inspiring massacres in the United States.
Given the importance of strength, it is especially regrettable that the Obama administration has begun to implement about $900 billion in defense cuts, leaving our military too old, too small, and not sufficiently ready to meet the demands of a chaotic world. As a first step toward restoring American leadership, I would reverse those cuts so that our troops have the training and equipment they deserve.
There are things to like about McMullin's essay here—he's against torture, for example. But it's hard to see much daylight between his positions and those of, say, Hillary Clinton. Which is to say, they're neither very libertarian nor particularly smart. Over at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison takes us on a brief tour:
His Syria policy is essentially identical to Clinton's, including support for a "no-fly zone," and he thinks the U.S. should have bombed the Syrian government in 2013. McMullin's support for an aggressive foreign policy isn't limited to that. He favors sending weapons to Ukraine, he is for continued support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, he thinks the U.S. should "prevent Russia from conducting airstrikes in Syria" (he doesn't say how), he supports the Cuba embargo, he wants to use a small number of ground troops in the war on ISIS, and of course he thinks military spending should be increased. His campaign press releases predictably describe the nuclear deal with Iran as "disastrous." Also like a typical hawk, he claims that supposed U.S. "withdrawal" from the world under Obama has allowed "destructive forces" to "surge." In his National Interest piece, he says that "we must exercise leadership in a prudent way," but based on these positions it seems clear that McMullin has a very strange definition of prudence. McMullin hopes to win over voters that can't bring themselves to support either major party nominee, but on foreign policy he combines many of the worst positions of both. That reinforces my impression that he is an anti-Trump candidate whose main appeal is to Republicans that remain deeply committed to a very aggressive foreign policy.
There is much to like about Evan McMullin, or at least to prefer over some of the uglier trends in the GOP and conservatism writ large. On ABC's This Week over the weekend, for example, McMullin winningly described his candidacy as "dedicated to these principles that I'm talking about, namely the equality of all men and women. We are standing also for the cause of liberty, the idea that we all ought to have the power and the freedom to pursue happiness in the way we like." He criticized forthrightly the "bigoted, sexist, xenophobic messages" coming out of the mouth of Donald Trump. He is pro-immigration and pro-trade, opposes the death penalty, and has said conservatives should "move on" from their opposition to gay marriage.
But let's not pretend that the Gitmo-loving hawk who can't criticize Gary Johnson without making dumb weed and prostitution jokes is anybody's libertarian, let alone somehow more deserving of the descriptor than the two-time L.P. nominee. The fact is, no matter who the Libertarian Party would have nominated, Weekly Standard-style conservatives, who are appalled both by Donald Trump's manners and foreign policy, would have coughed up some pro-life hawk who knows how to impress the Washington Post editorial board. Interventionism, abortion, and respectability politics are just too important to leave in the hands of libertarian weirdos. Even if the alternative only has access to a maximum 84 electoral votes.