The Libertarian party is having a big year. Its presidential ticket is composed of two former Republican governors with reasonably good records and a great deal more relevant executive experience between the two of them than the Democratic and Republican nominees combined. “For once,” the Libertarians joke, “we aren’t the crazy ones.”
In a three-way race against Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, broke the 10 percent mark in two August polls — far ahead of where he was last time around, far ahead of where Ralph Nader was in 2000 and even Ross Perot in 1996, though well behind Perot’s 20 percent standing in the summer of 1992, without which all that probably would have been heard of Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 would have been: “Who?” That the Clintons might end up owing two presidencies to megalomaniac billionaire dilettantes is a remarkable thing.
Let’s get the pro forma stuff out of the way: Gary Johnson is not going to be elected president in 2016. He is not going to be a spoiler who costs the Republican or Democratic nominee an important state or throws the election into the House of Representatives. But he already is the most significant Libertarian-party presidential candidate in history, at least in raw electoral terms: His 2012 showing of 1.2 million votes set a record for the party, though one might argue that 1988 candidate Ron Paul and 1980 vice-presidential nominee David Koch have been more important as movement builders. Johnson seems very likely to outperform his 2012 tally, perhaps by a great deal.
Why is it in this year that the Libertarian party is having such a strong showing? The number of ideologically driven libertarians who understand themselves as separate from (as, indeed, opposed to) the conservative movement and who generally cannot abide supporting Republican candidates is tiny in electoral terms. Usually, the Libertarians and other third parties benefit from the belief, justified or not, that the two major parties are mere machines driven by their own internal political and economic imperatives and hence resistant to radical change, which presumably can be had only through third-party candidates. That’s a difficult argument to make this year: Mrs. Clinton, having been humiliated for the second time in a Democratic primary, is running a candidacy that is in many ways to the left of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, certainly to the left of Barack Obama. The Republicans have, for their part, nominated a populist entertainer with no particular interest in party orthodoxy. If you are in the market for something radical, both of the major parties are in 2016 happy to oblige.
And yet there’s Gary Johnson, running far ahead of some earlier third-party challenges that are remembered as historically significant: He is outpolling by a wide margin the 1948 candidacy of segregationist Democrat Strom Thurmond and is within striking distance of the 1968 performance of segregationist Democrat George Wallace.
Johnson is, however, trailing the 1980 performance of John Anderson, the candidate he most resembles and the one he probably has in mind.
Anderson, a highly intelligent Foreign Service veteran and Harvard Law graduate, had for years represented an Illinois district as one of the most conservative members of the House, but had drifted in a libertarian-to-liberal direction. He made a good impression during the 1980 GOP primary debates, partly as a Paul Ryan–style policy wonk (he’d advocated cutting payroll taxes by half and making up the difference with a higher gasoline tax) and partly as a plain-speaking realist. In the same way that Ted Cruz would a generation later distinguish himself by taking a stand against ethanol subsidies in Iowa, where they are popular in the way that only free money is popular, Anderson broke ranks with Republicans and endorsed Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo, a retaliatory measure taken against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan. But he was far from a thoroughgoing hawk: Asked about their worst mistakes in office, the other candidates hemmed and hawed, but Anderson immediately cited his vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which deepened U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He also mocked Reagan’s insistence that the federal government could ratchet up defense spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget simultaneously.
That’s the kind of honesty that keeps a candidate down in the 20 percent range, where Anderson stayed. Eventually, he withdrew from the Republican race and ran as an independent. Jimmy Carter did him a great favor by refusing to share a debate stage with him, which left Anderson in a one-on-one debate with Ronald Reagan, where he turned in a good performance.
In the end, it was not the libertarian-leaning conservatives who backed Anderson (with the exception of those of the Ron Paul persuasion, who viewed Reagan as a warmonger, most were thrilled with the GOP nominee) but liberals ranging from the editors of The New Republic, who endorsed him, to what was left of the Rockefeller Republicans, who had no use for ideological firebrands such as Reagan.
You can see the appeal for Gary Johnson, who is not, despite being aligned with what is arguably the most ideologically committed of the familiar political parties, particularly ideological. Almost every good governor has the soul of an accountant, which is why many fiscal conservatives find them attractive as presidential candidates and why most populists do not. Johnson may call himself a Libertarian, but he is in many ways an old-fashioned liberal Republican, a Rockefeller revivalist. He even went to the trouble of finding the last surviving specimen of the species living in the wild, William Weld, to be his running mate.
And that is why Johnson, who is having a remarkable year, arguably is having less of a remarkable year than he should be having.
What Johnson knows is that conservatives have been looking for an alternative to the Republican party for more than 60 years. From the founding of this magazine (“Our principles are round and Eisenhower is square”) to the failed Reagan insurgency in 1976 to the tea-party movement to the Trump campaign, the motley coalition that is the conservative movement has always had a Master Blaster relationship with the Republican party, each trying to ride piggy-back on the other.
Sometimes, the issues most important to the insurgency are those in the Venn-diagram overlap between the circle labeled “Conservative Priorities” and the one labeled “Republican Policy Agenda.” In those cases, the insurgency usually tries to work within the party, to embolden Republicans to act on their own program and to inspire or eliminate malingerers. That’s what happened in 1980, 1994, and 2010. Other times, elements of the Right take up an issue that is outside that conservative–Republican overlap. That usually has to do with foreign policy (the Ron Paul movement was more about George W. Bush than it was about Ron Paul) or international trade, which produced Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and the Reform party. But the 2016 election is an interesting mess in that the same energies that normally would have swelled the ranks of a Perot or Buchanan (or even George Wallace) candidacy were, through the instrument of open primaries and the declining real-world power of a party “establishment” that exists mainly in rhetoric and fantasy, channeled into the transfiguration of Donald Trump, a Hillary Clinton donor and ally of Chuck Schumer who now, oddly, leads the Republican party.
Libertarian-minded Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump will be tempted by Johnson, but they will not be tempted very much. Johnson and Weld are men out of time (which of you even knew that Weld was still alive?), and they are in part stuck fighting the last generation’s culture wars. Those “damn preachers” who gave Barry Goldwater fits still loom large in their imaginations, which is why Johnson is so very, very bad — and so very un-libertarian — on religious-liberty issues. It takes some acrobatics to run as a principled libertarian who is pretty excited about weed but also excited about using the law to punish you for declining on religious grounds to participate on a commercial basis in the marriage of a homosexual couple. The Rockefeller Republicanism in Johnson’s political DNA makes him hard where he should be soft and soft where he should be hard. He’s willing to see unborn children butchered in the name of a vaguely articulated pro-choice principle but has fits when illegal immigrants are described as “illegal immigrants.” Weld, one of the most charming men in American politics, is somewhat worse, with a terrible record on some core libertarian-conservative issues, gun rights prominent among them.
There were a great many people in 1992 who argued that a Republican party that became more libertarian in the Johnson-Weld sense — laying off the so-called social issues — would succeed. In reality, the Rockefeller Republicans all but disappeared, and the GOP rose to its greatest position of power while advocating (if not always successfully) a full-spectrum conservatism that is much more strongly pro-life than was the 1980 Republican consensus. Young people since that time grew more suspicious of abortion and embraced a much more pro-life ethic than their parents had, and Americans also moved closer to conservative views on gun rights and immigration. At the same time, they moved away from conservatives on homosexual marriage and have woefully mixed-up views of related religious-liberty questions. Which is to say, ordinary voters continue to be ordinary voters, not ideologues.
What is strange, and almost shocking, is that the Republican mainstream has done so little to appropriate Johnson-Weld’s strengths. The conservative movement has long been open to a more realistic, libertarian, and federalist approach to marijuana and other drugs, an issue that accounts for a great deal of Libertarian-party support. And while the GOP is not going to — and should not — embrace a Ron Paul foreign policy, a green-eyeshade approach to rationalizing our extravagant defense outlays would assuage the concerns of many voters, especially when foreign adventures already are the subject of neo-Taftian Republican skepticism. On the other side of the ledger, the “open borders” Republicans who so concern Trump voters do not, for the most part, exist beyond a few think tanks and opinion columns. To the extent that immigration is a question of law enforcement — and illegal immigration is almost entirely that — it coincides with a traditional Republican strength. Trade, for reasons that are more social than economic, will remain tricky.
Gary Johnson and William Weld are both decent, honorable men with fine records in public service and no particular reason to be elected president and vice president. But the strength of this year’s Libertarian-party candidacy is a reminder that there is a substantial number of Americans who are looking for something that the Republican party is not offering, neither in its pre-Trump configuration nor after its disfiguration by Trump and Trumpism. Johnson is not offering them exactly what they want (still less what they need), but he is thriving for a reason, and conservatives should take note.