Politics & Policy

The Libertarian Light Flickers in CNN Town Hall

Johnson at CPAC 2016 (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Gary Johnson’s odd performance in a high-profile TV appearance did little to boost his cause.

If people are sufficiently exposed to libertarianism, they will support it: That’s the refrain from the Libertarian party ticket. Such assurance has not yet been vindicated. Since being nominated at the Libertarian convention, Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, and his running mate William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, have appeared on several high-profile television shows, including Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But with the ticket’s poll numbers hovering around 10 percent, and the personal — rather than political — nature of those media appearances, last night’s town hall on CNN marked a tremendous opportunity.

The goal for Johnson-Weld is to poll above 15 percent, at which point they would have to be invited to the presidential debates. That would be the ultimate exposure, and the two former governors are convinced it would make the American people come around to the light side.

The town hall represented the first time that a major news network handled Johnson-Weld like a serious political entity. Heavily publicized, it aired at 9 p.m. in a dignified studio soaked with striking blue and red. Host Chris Cuomo challenged the idea that Johnson’s proposed Fair Tax would be revenue neutral; a woman whose son’s heroin overdose resulted in permanent brain damage asked Johnson how he could support drug legalization. It is safe to say that the kid gloves were not on.

Presumably, the event was many Americans’ first exposure to libertarian ideology and its package of accompanying policies. But Johnson’s performance as a proponent of libertarianism was remarkably inconsistent, casting doubt on the notion that exposure to the principles of Johnson-Weld will result in popular support.

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Johnson seemed underprepared on a few occasions. He accused Cuomo of delving too far “into the weeds” when the host insisted that the candidate’s proposal to replace all taxes with one consumption tax would not keep federal tax revenue the same. Especially on economic questions, where libertarians are supposed to be strong, he struggled to explain exactly what a Johnson presidency would look like.

Throughout, Johnson lacked the charismatic polish of seasoned politicians. This was most evident in a missed opportunity to humanize the cause of ending drug prohibition. He cited the success of drug programs in Zurich, which was a nice bit of empirical data, but voters often want their fears soothed, and Johnson came across as didactic and emotionally unaware in responding to the mother whose son had been so tragically injured.

Johnson came across as didactic and emotionally unaware in responding to a mother whose son had tragically died.

Other times, his responses were less relevant answers and more tangentially related talking points. Audience member Ahmad Green Hayes, for instance, asked where Johnson stood on “supporting, protecting, and upholding the human and civil rights of black people.” Johnson instantly pivoted to the war on drugs, and by the time his answer was complete — “We’d like to bring an end to the drug war, and treat the issue as a public-health issue, not a criminal justice issue” — he seemed to have forgotten the original question. Sure, the idea that overzealousness in prosecuting drug crimes contributes to racial inequality is plausible, but he failed to draw out the connection. A particularly amusing moment came when Johnson announced that he was going to pivot to talking about another issue, and proceeded to do just that.

Weld, on the other hand, brought an impressive combination of knowledge and explanatory talent to the stage and partially salvaged Johnson’s uneven performance. Disaffected Republicans pumped a collective fist when he challenged Donald Trump’s rash ideas about the wisdom of abandoning our East Asian allies. Weld also chimed in following Johnson’s non-answer to Hayes, clarifying the ticket’s position. Amusingly, Johnson then assured audience members that “we’ll be doing this as a team.”

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In one sense, last night’s unevenness was refreshing. Johnson came across as an honest exponent of a practically feasible strain of libertarian ideology but he never resembled the archetype of a pathologically calculated politician that voters rebuked in 2016. The dynamic between him and Weld was an interesting counterpoint to the contemporary model where the vice president is little more than a strategic token.

#related#But in another sense, last night revealed that electoral politics is endemically hostile to libertarianism. Libertarians believe, for instance, that the presidency has morphed into an imperious distortion. It is not that Johnson forgot his specific policy prescriptions as much as he simply does not have any. Congress should be the ones passing legislation, he told us. But that idea is responsible for many of Johnson’s unsatisfying answers last night: Anxious voters wanted to know what he would do as president, and the answer was often “nothing.”

If people are sufficiently exposed to libertarianism, they will support it: Last night’s town hall called the veracity of that proposition into question.

— Theodore Kupfer is an intern at National Review

Editor’s Note: This piece originally mistakenly stated that a woman whose son had died from a heroin overdose asked Gary Johnson a question about drug legalization. In fact, she said that her son had sustained severe brain damage. 

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