Anatomy of a faceplant: Inside the Libertarian Party's abysmal 2016 campaign
How Gary Johnson shattered the libertarian movement
I should have known the Libertarian Party would be a disaster in 2016 from the moment stories of its national convention began to break.
With headlines like "Man drops bid to be Libertarian Party chair by strip dancing live on C-SPAN" and debate topics like World War I (yes, that's a one) and selling heroin to children, it should have been obvious from the get-go that the LP was not ready for prime time.
I ought to mention I am not a neutral observer. While I'm not a Libertarian Party member, I am very much a small-l libertarian and am more than predisposed to give the LP a real chance. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both unthinkable choices for me on foreign policy — let alone their many other flaws of character and agenda alike — and though Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson has never been my favorite, by comparison he struck me as an easy leap over a very low bar.
Of course, a third-party victory at the national level is all but impossible, so my interest in Johnson was never based in a serious hope that he might win the White House. Still, if there was any year a Libertarian might by some miracle manage to win enough votes to kick presidential selection over to the House of Representatives (where a third-party candidate with gubernatorial experience might stand a fighting chance opposite two historically unpopular major party choices), surely 2016 was it.
Instead, the LP's big break has been marked by one avoidable gaffe after another, an abysmally embarrassing performance and an incomparable lost opportunity.
Johnson and his running mate — another former governor, Bill Weld — have managed to alienate the very #NeverTrump Republicans they needed to woo to get enough support to make it into the general election debates, which by itself would have been a major victory for libertarianism, no matter what happened on Election Day. Johnson and Weld have also muddled the libertarian approach to governance, presenting it largely as centrism in a miscalculated attempt at pragmatic politics. And they have furthered division among libertarians, setting back efforts to influence practical politics in a movement already uncertain about whether that is a useful task.
First, the gaffes. Oh, the gaffes. At this point I involuntarily cringe whenever I see a headline that begins, "Gary Johnson says…" Though the initial gaffe most Americans heard about was Johnson's "Aleppo moment," this was hardly the first indication that the former New Mexico governor is in desperate need of media training. That actually came in June, when CNN featured Johnson and Weld in a town hall event. It was a fantastic opportunity to introduce the ticket to a country coming to terms with a Clinton-Trump race.
Instead, the LP candidates used that moment to describe President Obama as a "good guy" (Johnson) who has been "statesman-like" in a successful second term (Weld). They called Clinton a "wonderful public servant" (Johnson again, really batting for the fences here) and an "old friend" (Weld). As Matt Welch of the libertarian Reason Magazine incredulously asked, "You are less than 10 minutes into the most important introduction to voters of this campaign, one in which differentiating yourself from the existing big-party competition is kind of the point, and you can't do any better than this?"
Apparently they could not.
In that case, I'm inclined to cut Johnson some slack: There aren't a whole lot of high-ranking libertarians out there; I too would struggle to name a politician I admire. Still, much like the Aleppo moment, the problem was not so much what he said but how he failed to follow it up with a persuasive argument. To quote Welch again, "Part of running for president is showing people…that you are nimble enough on your feet to deal with a brainfart without saying 'Hey look, we're having a brainfart over here!'" As for, "Who's Harriet Tubman?" — well, as the kids say, I can't even.
These gaffes are not merely embarrassing. When combined with Johnson's incoherent approach to religious liberty, they are a surefire recipe for estranging disaffected Republicans who might otherwise have been inclined to vote Libertarian this year. If the LP ticket's kind words for Clinton and Obama weren't enough to put GOP voters off for good, Johnson's statements on religious liberty certainly were.
The trouble there stems from the fact, as I've argued at length in my column at Rare, that Johnson's libertarianism is based more in instinct than principle. His policy impulses are, from a libertarian view, generally good, but they are not grounded in anything resembling a developed governing philosophy. As a result, when two of his impulses conflict, he goes to pieces.
Here Johnson found himself possessed of instincts that free expression of religion is a right; that discrimination based on sexual orientation is bad; and that attempts to legislate matters of conscience typically turn out poorly. But he was entirely unable to coherently adjudicate between these competing (though not necessarily conflicting) proposals. This led to Johnson remarking in an interview with a conservative publication that he sees "religious freedom, as a category, as just being a black hole."
With comments like that, is it any surprise polling has shown Clinton snagging almost triple Johnson's support among social conservatives? No wonder he couldn't top the 15 percent national backing he needed to get into the debates.
That libertarianism of instinct rather than informed philosophical grounding is also why Johnson-Weld has been a better representative of bland centrism than libertarianism proper. Johnson likes to describe himself as "socially liberal and fiscally conservative," which under many circumstances is a decent shorthand for explaining libertarian domestic policy to the unfamiliar. But in the unique context of 2016, it's a nightmare.
To #NeverTrump Republicans, "socially liberal" reads more like libertine, and Johnson's messy religious liberty policy swoops in to confirm those concerns. To the Democrats among whom Johnson had the best chances — mainly the Bernie Sanders crowd, which actually has a good deal in common with libertarians on issues like ending the drug war, criminal justice reform, and opposing Wall Street cronyism — "fiscally conservative" sounds like an endorsement of special favors for the rich and throwing poor people out in the streets. Both phrases produce grave misunderstandings in the general electorate and never mention what is perhaps the LP's greatest distinction: its noninterventionist foreign policy.
These serious messaging problems aside, libertarianism is about much more than being socially liberal and fiscally conservative. It isn't just a moderating position between the standard left and right of American politics, though certainly we have and ought to emphasize points of resonance with each side. Condensing libertarianism to a tweetable soundbite is a valuable goal, but it can't come at the price of message distortion that fails to offer even pragmatic advantages.
And the general electorate is not the only demographic where Johnson-Weld has done damage. Already plagued by an unfortunate tendency to eat its own, the libertarian movement has fractured over Johnson's candidacy, raising questions about the merits of electoral participation itself. Libertarians (which I here use broadly to include those, like myself, who are not LP members) will likely always bicker over principle vs. practicality, purity vs. incrementalism, education vs. political activism, and so on. It's the nature of the beast.
Still, a candidate less confused than Johnson can help to bridge some of those intra-movement differences — or, at least, to not make them worse. For many libertarians, for instance, it was that first gaffe (the praise for Obama and Clinton) that raised far more serious concerns about Johnson-Weld than the Aleppo moment or the world leader brain freeze. For this crowd, it is easier to get over that sort of awkwardness than to vote for a candidate who won't clearly condemn the last eight (well, really 16) years of an imperial executive.
Faced with Clinton and Trump as the alternatives, Johnson only needed to turn in a reasonably compelling performance to capture the support of libertarians like me and the interest of enough voters to make it to that debate stage. Winning was probably never on the table, but a far better introduction of libertarianism to the American public was. Instead, Johnson seems likely to be remembered as a brief, embarrassing political oddity.