I bring up Gary Johnson because he’s on the cusp of re-entering the political conversation. He’s the frontrunner in the under-the-radar race to win the Libertarian Party nomination, and it just so happens that this third party will be on the presidential ballot in all 50 states.
You remember Gary Johnson, right? Two-term New Mexico governor who ran for president in ’12, the first Republican to launch a bid? Fiscally conservative and socially liberal? Popped up in a few early debates before CNN froze him out? Said out loud that marijuana should be nationally legalized, and that he smoked dope to ease the pain after breaking six ribs while paragliding in Maui?
OK, the pot thing might ring a bell.
I bring up Johnson because he’s on the cusp of re-entering the political conversation. He’s the frontrunner in the under-the-radar race to win the Libertarian Party nomination, and it just so happens that this third party will be on the presidential ballot in all 50 states. The odds of electoral success are nonexistent, of course — Johnson got the Libertarian nod in ’12 after his speedy GOP flameout, and notched 1 percent nationwide — but this year he could be catnip for angry and alienated voters.
He’s also having a mainstream media moment. The New York Times sought him out this week, and he was only too happy to say: “Given the fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I think, are two of the most polarizing figures in American politics today, where is the third choice? I don’t know how you set the dinner table any more favorably for a Libertarian candidate.”
People always say they want a third party; in this week’s Wisconsin primary exit poll, nearly 20 percent of Republican voters said they’d shop around if the GOP taps Trump or Cruz. Plus, we have the Monmouth University poll, which put Gary Johnson on its March menu. In a matchup with Clinton and Trump, Johnson got 11 percent — shaving Clinton’s lead a tad, but doing well in red states. A spokesman for the Monmouth poll concluded: “A vigorous third party campaign is a very real possibility this year … for voters who are not particularly thrilled with either major party choice.”
The caveat is that 76 percent didn’t know much about Johnson; they were just taking refuge in the third-party concept. Who knows, maybe they’d run screaming if they learned that he’s a marathon-running triathlete who envisions a totally unfettered free market (“My idea of the future is Uber everything,” he says); that he wants pay-as-you-go health care (“you’d have Stitches-R-Us”); that he’s pro-gay marriage and pro-choice on abortion; that he’s pro-immigration (Trump’s fence “is asinine”); that as governor he vetoed 700 bills, cut taxes 14 times, and balanced the budget eight years in a row; that his most recent job, before he quit to run for president again, was chief officer of a medical marijuana company.
In other words, Johnson doesn’t fit the two-party paradigm. A lot of Americans — OK, maybe several million at most — might like the fact that he breaks the mold, that he fails the standard ideological litmus tests. This year, they might be more tempted than usual to cast votes in protest, to give the finger to “the system.” Johnson could be the vehicle for their anger. And if he wins the Libertarian nomination (as expected), and if they raise his standing in the polls to 15 percent … well, that’s the threshold for inclusion in the autumn presidential debates. And wouldn’t that be a kick.
The big abiding problem, however, is that while Americans say they’d like a third party, they generally think it’s a wasted vote. Prominent libertarians admit this; in the words of David Boaz, “it’s very hard to persuade people to vote for a candidate they think has no chance of winning.” And partisan voters are wary of unintended consequences; to this day, many Republicans believe that Ross Perot’s 19 percent haul in ’92 put Bill Clinton in the White House; many Democrats believe that Ralph Nader’s Florida tally in ’00 put George W. Bush in the White House.
Still, how can you not be intrigued by a guy who’s planning a bike trip that will take him across the Rocky Mountains on dirt roads? Before he does that, let’s get him into the fall debates, just to shake things up. He won’t win, but, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
It’s always fun when partisans forget their phony talking points and accidentally speak the truth.
For instance, Republicans constantly try to con us by insisting that their new photo-ID laws are essential tools in fighting the ballot fraud epidemic (there’s zero evidence of a ballot fraud epidemic). But every once in awhile, they forget the con and confess that the laws are designed to dampen turnout from Those People.
It happened in Pennsylvania four years ago when state House Republican leader Mike Turzai predicted that the GOP’s new law “is gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state.” It happened in December ’12, when Republican strategist Scott Tranter blurted this at a public forum: “We want to do everything we can to help our side. Sometimes we think that’s voter ID, sometimes we think that’s longer lines [at the polls], whatever it may be.”
And now we have a new truth-teller. On Tuesday night, in Wisconsin, Congressman Glenn Grothman (a Cruz supporter) opined on local TV about the upcoming autumn race: “I think Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up. And now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well.”
That phony talking point, about combating voter fraud, is such a weight; it’s so freeing to just let it go. As Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”