It is time to start taking Gary Johnson seriously. No, seriously. Almost despite himself, the Libertarian-party nominee finds himself on the verge of securing a spot in the presidential debates this fall, having hit 13 percent in a recent CNN poll, just two percentage points short of the threshold to qualify. At stake, of course, is national exposure, and relevance in the race if he capitalizes. Holding him back is the fact that Johnson’s highest-profile appearances have so far been lackluster, owing in part to his deficiencies as a candidate and in part to the impulse of American voters to gravitate toward candidates who make lofty promises. Nevertheless, Johnson is gaining a bit of steam as he meets with big-time editorial boards, earns the attention of outlets like The New Yorker and FiveThirtyEight, and flushes the cannabinoids out of his system (it’s been eight weeks!).
The Libertarian ticket — Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, and running mate William Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts — has no small amount of real-world political experience. So far the ticket has been content to focus attention mainly on moderates, an approach that did John Anderson little good in 1980. Johnson and Weld trumpet their divergence from Republican policy on social and foreign-policy issues, in what could be an effective tack to pick up young independents in the general election. But the Libertarian platform, with its emphasis on economic freedom and prudence in governing, has several key elements of conservatism. It offers refuge for the record-high number of people who voted against an eventual party nominee in the Republican primary, coextensive with the people who still believe in limited government. So far, though, Johnson-Weld is drawing support equally from Democrats and Republicans. So if the Libertarians want to bring their numbers up, they must demonstrate their comparative virtues to these disaffected conservatives. To maximize support, Gary Johnson needs to court the Right.
But therein lies a problem. American politics may be in a state of profound rot, but Johnson is inclined to point it out only on the right. The Republican party is indeed an embarrassment: Its historically unpopular nominee cribs policy from — and praises — Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan; his wife (or her speechwriter) plagiarized her speech at the convention. Trump supporters are epistemological relativists who attack the truth for being disloyal to their man. Meanwhile, the party’s thoughtful, decent voices have either yielded to the authoritarian wave or been declared traitors. About all this Johnson has been publicly vocal. He is among Donald Trump’s most outspoken and effective critics, and his critique of what has become Republican orthodoxy is generally scathing and at times incisive.
Yet in a parallel world where the GOP was not going through such turmoil, it is the Democrats who would be facing crisis and questions about their party’s future. Their nominee, too, is historically unpopular, in part owing to FBI director James Comey’s public rebuke of her lying and the fact that her husband, in something only Bill could pull off, met with the attorney general while the Department of Justice’s investigation was ongoing. Clinton supporters are either starry-eyed about the prospect of a female president, loyalists thanking their lucky stars that the moniker “Little Marco” stuck, or independents begrudgingly resigned to backing the candidate who at least knows what the nuclear triad is. Meanwhile, the party has marginalized the burgeoning socialist insurrection for now, but absent the edifying specter of Trump it may soon resurface. About all this Johnson says little. His fondness for savaging Republicans gives way to a strange delicacy when Democrats are up for discussion. In a word-association exercise at a CNN town hall, Johnson labeled Clinton a “great public servant” and declined to elaborate.
Sure, Johnson’s libertarianism puts him at loggerheads with orthodox conservatives on social and foreign policy. But it should also bring biting reproach of liberals and socialists, who reject constraints on government (like the Constitution) when these stand in the way of a desired result. Johnson, to win the Right, should be an equal-opportunity critic of social control.
Johnson’s campaign strategy makes it seem like he is running against only one candidate. His recent Politico article titled “The GOP Is a Dying Party. That’s Why I’m Running against Trump,” mentioned the Democrats a number of times: zero. Yes, it was an effective piece of criticism, and he introduced himself and his philosophy quite neatly. And yes, as the Republican party slides into jingoistic authoritarianism, it deserves to be lambasted. But this is a Democratic party sporting a nominee who launched a clumsy intervention in Libya, who shows little hesitation about using federal power to move society where she thinks it should go, and is running on a platform of a minimum-wage increase that would devastate low-skilled workers in poorer states. Libertarians tend to define themselves against the Republican party, almost embarrassed by it. Johnson continues this trend. Yet Johnson, in style and substance, contrasts with Hillary as much as he does with Donald.
How convenient that voters hate both!
Johnson, in style and substance, contrasts with Hillary as much as he does with Donald.
Johnson and Weld, both former Republicans, appear to believe that they will be the default choice of scores of disaffected conservatives (and perhaps reap scores of thousands of their dollars in fundraising). They believe this because the American brand of libertarianism overlaps with conservatism more than it does with liberalism or socialism. Johnson wants to return the presidency to its constitutional role and allow the legislature to reassume its status as the chief driver of policy — so does Mike Lee. Johnson sees the fast-approaching crisis of runaway entitlements and understands the desperate need to reform them — so does Paul Ryan. Johnson supports free trade — so did most Republicans, at least until the Trump coup.
The good folks over at Reason love to skewer conservatives. But conservatives read Robert Nozick, and libertarians read National Review. Both believe that a government that engulfs the material property of its citizens sins, and that a federal system that chokes off civil society with metastasized programs breaks the social compact. These are — or should be — major points of agreement.
Where the Libertarian ticket may struggle more is with the conservatives who oppose Trump because of social issues. For social conservatives, Johnson might be no better than Trump and Clinton. But social conservatives have not seen “their” candidate do well in a while, save maybe for Rick Santorum’s 2012 victory in Iowa. Each major-party nominee, and an overwhelming majority of young people, opposes the conservative orthodoxy. Johnson, who criticizes state-imposed value demands as a matter of general principle, might represent a roundabout way for social conservatives to rehabilitate their approach, to carve out areas of independence rather than seek a nonexistent moral consensus.
Libertarianism will not be perfect for everyone, even as temporary refuge from a party that has lost its way. But for many conservatives, it could leap out as a temporary — and perhaps the best temporary — alternative.
This will not be so, however, if the two ex-Republican governors continue to publicly flagellate themselves for having once been linked to that party. Johnson-Weld have a strong case for conservative support — one that they should start making much more forcefully.