Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for President in 2012, just published an op-ed in the Washington Times in which he griped about not having been given enough free air time in the 2012 Presidential elections. (A rather interesting complaint from a supposed libertarian.)
I was immediately suspicious. Is it possible Gary Johnson really has a contribution to make to the electoral process with his op-ed? Or is this just another election loser whining that the deck was stacked against him? Given that 127,809,432 people cast votes for someone other than Gary Johnson in 2012, whining struck me as the most likely explanation for his sudden re-emergence into the political conversation.
The title of Johnson’s article was “More choices in presidential debates.” This seems reasonable enough. We all love more choices. Johnson doesn’t like the fact that the debate commissions generally require a candidate to poll more than 15% before being invited to the debates. Small wonder, since at the time the Obama-Romney debates got underway, Johnson’s polling numbers were statistically indistinguishable from my polling numbers. And no, I wasn’t an announced candidate. (I’m exaggerating only a little bit.)
Instead he suggests that anyone who can get on the ballot in enough states to have a chance to win the election should be invited. He says this is still a high threshold, requiring a lot of time, money, and popular support. That last feature seems dubious, since Johnson was able to get on the ballots of 48 states despite only convincing 1,275,951 people to vote for him. That’s an average of 26,582 votes per state that he was on the ballot in.
Heck, even Green Party candidate Jill Stein met Johnson’s criterion in 2012, and she only got 469,628 votes nationwide. Probably all from the gentrified suburbs of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington if I had to guess.
One reason so few people reach Johnson’s criterion isn’t that it is so difficult, but that there’s no reward for doing so. Only egomaniacs like Johnson and Stein would expend the effort. However, if there was a tangible reward for doing so – like say, a guaranteed televised soap box in a Presidential debate – you can bet more candidates would rise to that level. Such a result would force the presidential debate commission to raise their threshold for appearance and would force the states to raise their criteria for putting candidates on the ballot. Both serve to work against Johnson’s goals of broadening the conversation.
The subtitle of Johnson’s op-ed is “Americans Deserve To Hear Candidates of Third Parties.” That’s a laugh. Gary Johnson didn’t represent any party other than the Gary Johnson Party. Oh, I know he was the nominee of the Libertarian Party, and I’m aware that the Libertarians have a long history of running really lousy Presidential campaigns – but what kind of Libertarian is Gary Johnson? The same kind of Libertarian that former Florida Governor Charlie Crist is a Democrat. Opportunistic.
Johnson was the Republican Governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003. On April 21, 2011, he announced that he was seeking the Republican nomination for President. His candidacy attracted the fervent support of about 12 people. He was polling so poorly that he was excluded from several debates. That’s right – this guy who thinks he belonged in a national debate with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had earlier proven so unpopular that he didn’t merit sharing the stage with as many as eight other Republican candidates who were more popular! Only in Johnson’s confused mind would his failure to garner even a little support within his own party argue in favor of his sharing a stage with the current President of the United States in an election debate.
He dropped out of the race (without anyone noticing) on December 28, 2011. A little more than 4 months later, Johnson was able to convince 419 delegates at the Libertarian National Convention to make him their Party’s nominee. As far as I can tell, delegates at the Convention are not bound by any primary election results, and therefore quite literally Johnson’s argument for us paying attention to him was that 419 people voted for him.
Johnson is the equivalent of a pro ballplayer who’s tired of being sent down to the minors all the time, and so joins the YMCA softball league where he can dominate. If you can’t beat out Mitt Romney and Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and John Huntsman and Ron Paul and Rick Perry, then find a political Party so weak that you can, in 4 months, beat out Libertarian lifer R. Lee Wrights, active in the Party since 2004 and active in the movement since 2000.
I’m sorry, but I can’t see how you’re a “third party candidate” if you spent all of 4 months building up the party that you are leading. No, the Libertarians happily joined the Gary Johnson Party, not the other way around.
Even in his own op-ed piece, Johnson torpedoes his own argument when he points out that third-party candidates have shared the debate stage with the two major-party candidates. Ross Perot, even without the benefit of attaching himself to a minor third party with a national organization, was able to get his name on all the state ballots. But more than that – more than Gary Johnson ever achieved in his wettest dreams – Perot polled a lead in the national campaign for President, appeared on major news magazines, and generated genuine enthusiasm at a grass roots level.
But Gary Johnson, to paraphrase a line from another Presidential debate, is no Ross Perot. That he isn’t Ross Perot isn’t our fault, it’s his. It’s nothing to be particularly ashamed about – there’s about 320,000,000 people in this country who aren’t Ross Perot either. But Johnson’s not even Ron Paul. Or Tim Pawlenty. Or John Huntsman. (Okay, maybe he’s John Huntsman. I used to get the two of them confused.)
If Gary Johnson was genuinely interested in a third party movement, then – here’s a crazy idea – lead a third party movement. Third parties aren’t made by joining an already-established rudderless party, garner their mantle in 4 months because they have no better ideas, and then cry that you aren’t getting 1/3 of the debate stage with a sitting President and a former Massachusetts governor. Third parties are made by rallying supporters around an idea, establishing a regional base by winning some state legislative seats, mayoral elections, and a House seat or two. They’re built slowly but surely.
In fact, scratch the pro ballplayer analogy, Johnson now reminds me of some of my students who do nothing for 3 months of the semester and then show up wondering why I’m not offering extra credit opportunities.
Admittedly, even this formula for third parties has rarely worked in the United States. (The Republican Party itself is the only good example other than the possible regrettable period of the Dixiecrats.) But there is another option, and that’s to change a political party from within.
It’s been done before. The Republican Party changed dramatically in the aftermath of Goldwater, with the help of the Buckleys, Reagans, Friedmans, and Hayeks of the party. It may be changing again, and ironically, one of the drivers of this change was Johnson’s onetime mentor, Ron Paul. Paul, and his son, along with the forces of generational change, are slowly moving the Republican Party toward the anti-war, small-government, pro-decriminalization, libertarian policies that Gary Johnson claims to stand for.
I’m in favor of some of this change, not all of it, but I can see it happening nonetheless. And if Gary Johnson wanted to see it happen, he might have stayed within the Republican Party and been a leader in that transition. Unfortunately, while I don’t doubt Johnson’s sincerity on these issues, it seems that Gary Johnson cares mostly about Gary Johnson, and the kind of commitment and hard work that would entail, not to mention the suppression of his own ambitions in support of the more popular Ron and Rand Paul, was not the kind of sacrifice Johnson was ever willing to make.
So in the end, by joining a minor party (in which he has no real ties that bind) and that has no place in the Presidential debates, Johnson has effectively silenced himself. He complains now, in an op-ed, that the media and the major parties have silenced him, but the truth is he silenced himself. He didn’t want the kind of voice you have by supporting issues and candidates who had a bigger reputation – he wanted the kind of voice you have when you are the star of the show.
And now that no one will give him his own show, he bitches. Cry me a river. Continuing talking to yourself, at least you have an interested listener that way.