With all the news-news, let alone news specifically concerning Democratic and Republican candidates for the 2020 presidential election, you can be forgiven for not keeping up with the race to win the nomination of America's third-place political party.
But news there was this past weekend at the South Carolina Libertarian Party state convention. Author and longtime libertarian hand Jacob Hornberger, the 69-year-old founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation, formally announced his candidacy for president, immediately becoming one of the most well-known of the dozen or so names working actively to take the baton from two-time nominee Gary Johnson.
Hornberger, the third-place finisher in the 2000 Libertarian presidential race, portrays his candidacy as a way for the party to return to principle, an implicit critique of nominating former Republican elected officials in the past three cycles. In this, the friend-of-Ron-Paul shares a commonality with the other source of Libertarian weekend news from South Carolina, which was a debate I moderated between six of Hornberger's competitors.
Across multiple questions, including an open-ended query about lessons learned from Johnson's record-shattering 2016 campaign, the sextet of Adam Kokesh, Kim Ruff, Jo Jorgensen, Ken Armstrong, Dan "Taxation is Theft" Behrman, and Vermin Supreme made it clear that candidates are competing to represent the Libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party.
Ruff, who won the post-debate straw poll, volunteered her main takeaway from 2016. "We should not allow ourselves to be bullied," she said. "We should not allow ourselves to be put in a position where we're effectively told that if we don't elect a certain person, or nominate a certain person to represent us, then we're going to have the whole thing fall apart. We shouldn't buy into lies—because that's what we were fed—and we should stand up and have a fearless Libertarian as our standard-bearer."
Kokesh struck a similar note. "We've got to recognize that what we're giving [the nominee] is incredibly valuable, [so] it has to be someone who we can trust with that, who's going to use it to maximum impact, whose commitment to the cause is unquestionable," the early runaway leader in the fundraising primary said. Also: "We need a different message. We need a fundamental shift from playing their game, making this about politics. It's not. Freedom is about love, and ethics, and unity, and basic moral principles that unite us as a human family. When we put that forward, that's how we're going to win, not by playing their game."
Hornberger, who was in the attendance, later criticized the debaters for not being hardcore enough about abolishing Medicare:
The debate moderator…asked a simple and direct but critically important question to each of the candidates: "What would you do with Medicare?"
If I had been included in the debate, [I] would have responded, without hesitation, with a simple three-word answer: "Repeal it immediately."
Not one of the six candidates on stage answered in that way. All of their answers came in the form of some sort of reform, which, of course, leaves this socialist program intact.
In fairness to the other candidates, Armstrong did not answer the question directly, and Kokesh is campaigning on dissolving the federal government, which presumably would render Medicare a non-entity.
This is pretty much how the early nominating process has gone: candidates short on elected experience (Armstrong was to my knowledge the only such veteran on stage Saturday, with two stints on the Honolulu County Neighborhood Board) but long on libertarian activism, vying to more purely distill the party platform. (When asked to name the platform plank that made them most uncomfortable, five of the six candidates said there weren't any. The one exception was Jo Jorgensen, the party's 1996 vice presidential nominee, who suggested that the current pro-choice abortion language might be deleted so that it doesn't "keep some people from even considering us.")
In part, this focus on the salesmanship of first principles reflects available personnel and a jockeying for future position. If, say, Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) were to enter the race, there will definitely be at least some market among the 1,000 or so party delegates who will choose the nominee next May for a message of "We cannot elect or nominate a former Republican…for the fourth cycle in a row." That's a direct quote from Kokesh, from a July debate in which all five candidates said they'd endorse each other before getting behind the most famous libertarian in Congress.
I also suspect that some of the reticence about going (in Ruff's July words) "Republican light" stems from a lingering hostility toward Johnson's running mate, former Republican Massachusetts governor and current Republican presidential challenger Bill Weld. Weld barely won a second-ballot vote at 2016's Libertarian Party convention, and then he vouched for Hillary Clinton's character on MSNBC a week before the election, and then he jumped ship for the GOP in January after having previously declared himself a "Libertarian for Life."
It's not necessarily that Libertarians feel jilted, though Weld had spent a year-plus prior to his latest party swap doing the spade work of endorsing Libertarian candidates, raising money, and even debating Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) in these very pages about whether the GOP is a hopeless vehicle for positive change. But there is a mixture of shame and resentment that someone whose foreign policy views were perceived as interventionist was too freely given the job as vice-promoter of the Libertarian brand. (For a long argument on that subject, listen to September's Soho Forum debate between Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark and comedian Dave Smith.)
Hornberger, notably, is a longtime antiwar activist. (See my 2011 interview with him on the topic.) The candidates at both forums I moderated were uniformly and enthusiastically in favor of bring the damn troops home now. ("If elected president," Jorgensen said Saturday, "I would turn America into one giant Switzerland, armed and neutral, but enough forces to protect and defend American soil.")
Even Ken Armstrong, a former NATO commander, said this when I asked him whether he was really ready to dissolve the North American Treaty Organization:
Well, NATO's a treaty, and I believe in treaties and contracts between willing participants. I'm just not sure that the American people really know what they bought into with NATO. Yeah, honestly, I think that we need to back away from NATO. The only reason I believe we should stay in the United Nations, to tell you the truth, is because being a permanent member of the Security Council we get that precious veto on the Security Council, and I don't think we want to give that up. But these global organizations are not globalist, they're corporatist, and I think we need to get as far away from them as we can.
That is a far cry from where Bill Weld is at nowadays.
So it's perhaps no surprise that when I asked the six candidates on stage to name a single declared presidential candidate from the two major parties that they would most welcome into the Libertarian Party, not one of them volunteered the party's most recent vice presidential nominee. Instead, two of them (Armstrong and Ruff) chose antiwar fave Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii). Jorgensen said Mark Sanford ("He's libertarian at heart"), and the other three either joked or declined to state, though Kokesh had previously name-checked Gabbard as his "favorite socialist running for president."
Will this uncompromising anti-war message and adherence to libertarian principle sell comparatively unknown candidates to an audience larger than the half-million or so registered Libertarian Party voters? Will any other big name actually jump in, given the seemingly unfavorable circumstances for third parties at this political moment? It's too soon to know the answer to either question. Consider that Gary Johnson only announced his candidacy last time around in January 2016.
But the fundraising race so far is a far cry from the $12.2 million eventually amassed by Johnson/Weld. According to Federal Election Commission filings, as compiled on Wikipedia, Kokesh as of the end of September far outpaced the field, with $201,000 compared to $34,000 for Behrman, $19,000 for Vermin Supreme, $13,000 for Armstrong, and $6,000 apiece for Jorgensen and Ruff. And the burn rate is close to 100 percent—the most cash any candidate reported as having on hand was Jorgensen's $5,000.
When I asked the candidates how they expected to match the Johnson/Weld haul, perhaps the most honest answer came from the political satirist on stage.
"Well, that's a pretty inconceivable amount of money, it's a whole lot of money, it's money I can't even begin to imagine," said Vermin Supreme. "So I would say, yeah, sure, of course I'm going to. We're going to get fundraisers, and we're going to crowdsource it, and we're going to get like 12 million people to send me a dollar. So that's going to happen; that's a no-brainer, we're going to make that quick. So yeah, definitely. We're going to spend it, too."