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Politics & Policy

Gary Johnson’s Moment?

Picking up on David French’s article, I have to say that this is an almost perfect moment for Gary Johnson and the Libertarian party. And I also have to say that only Libertarians could be stupid and impractical enough to blow it (either by nominating Johnson’s opponent or by forcing Johnson to hew so strictly to “big L” Libertarian dogma that he becomes unpalatable  to non-purists in the general election. ) But right now I think reporters are largely missing a potentially big story right before their eyes, because Johnson could easily have a high vote ceiling in the 20% range.  In theory, he has all of the tools to be a serious factor in the election. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for conservatism, I’m not as sure.

Johnson is pretty much the anti-Trump ideologically, as David outlines.  He was a successful two-term governor of a bluish purple state with America’s highest percentage of Hispanics.   He’s had a close enough and recent enough relationship with the GOP (he was briefly a GOP Presidential candidate in 2012) that he still has networks there.  He is “mainstream” enough that he could attract legitimate non-protest votes from people who could really see him as president. Certainly he’s more qualified than Trump and he’d be far better than Hillary. 

His positions social issues will be a problem for more socially conservative voters, but the ones who abhor Trump might not care. And they are not as extreme left as many “big L” libertarians.  His position on immigration is horrible, but so is the position of most GOP establishment candidates, particularly those in swingish districts that will be looking to distance themselves from Trump.  His fiscal approach will be a delight to most small government conservatives and could easily peel off a number of suburban Hillary voters who will be sick of her leftist pandering.   It’s a rare stroke of luck for the Libertarians to have arguably the most mainstream candidate they have ever had as a potential opponent for the two most unpopular nominees in history.  Honestly, the biggest risk for Johnson is that he will have had to take enough loony positions to win the Libertarian nod in 2012 that a detailed oppo file will come up with things that disqualify him to voters he’d otherwise appeal to.

Whether all this is a good thing for conservatives is less certain.  On the one hand, it gives many Anti-Trump Republicans, especially those focused on fiscal issues and federalism, a very natural place to go.  And it could provide a very plausible “safety valve” for Republican candidates in swing districts looking to identify with a candidate who was a Republican until very recently, and who is unlikely to embarrass them on the campaign trail.  This could save a number of seats that the GOP might otherwise lose with Trump as the nominee and could be the difference between holding the House and losing it.

On the other hand, the biggest problem for conservatives with a Johnson candidacy is that it could seriously raise the profile of the Libertarian party, which, even in its fringey current incarnation has already cost the GOP several Senate, House, and Gubernatorial seats (see Virginia Governor 2013, and arguably, Virginia Senate 2014).  A serious Libertarian party could damage the GOP badly in lots of places, and while some might say “good riddance” to a Trump-led GOP, the Libertarian party is hardly a comfortable home for a serious conservative alternative.  Much as Johnson has theoretical appeal as a non-Trump option, the long-term effects of a “successful” Libertarian candidate at the national level may mean that for strategic reasons #NeverTrump voters who are interested in the long-term future of the GOP should look elsewhere. 

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