Monday, May 30, 2016

Libertarian Party Nominates Johnson and Weld for President, Failure Imminent

The Libertarian Party convention occurred this weekend and the delegates selected Gary Johnson and William Weld to be the party's nominees for President and Vice President. Johnson and Weld are both former Republican governors in New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively, and the case for their nomination was made almost exclusively in terms of electability--which is something of an odd criterion for a party that has never garnered above 1% of the vote in any previous presidential race.

Of course, this year is going to be different. Never in recent memory has the American electorate been this dissatisfied with their two primary choices. Indeed, in acknowledgement of this fact, the party actually awarded Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump a Liberty Outreach award for helping the American people search for political alternatives. Further confirmation comes from recent polls that featured Gary Johnson gaining at least 10% support in a hypothetical election contest among him, Trump, and Clinton. If this support rises to 15%, Gov. Johnson would likely be featured in the Presidential debates, which would be a major coup for the Libertarian Party. Moreover, there have even been unconfirmed whispers that Johnson's campaign could be the beneficiaries of millions of dollars of campaign contributions from disenfranchised wealthy Republican donors.

Anyway, this is the context in which the nomination decision was made. And in this context, one can almost understand the desire to choose the compromise candidacy that Gary Johnson and especially William Weld represent, over a more consistently libertarian choice like Austin Petersen or Darryl Perry. Johnson and Weld were viewed as the pragmatic choice, and both managed to win on the second ballot of their respective races (the LP holds separate votes for the VP and President).

I don't think it's all that debatable that the Johnson and Weld ticket will get more media coverage than the libertarian alternatives. Even before their nomination, they gained significant coverage and it's likely to continue. But having a platform to deliver the message is only part of the battle. It also matters what that message is. In the case of Johnson and Weld, the message is going to be many things; confusing is probably going to be near the top of the list.

Before we go further, it should go without saying that Johnson is preferable to Trump or Clinton (or Sanders) on basically every issue. That said, he and his running mate have been sufficiently bad on foreign policy at this point that my vote is likely to go elsewhere.

The Candidates
The former New Mexico governor comes off as eminently likable and real. He was also the first sitting governor to call for legalization of marijuana, way back in 1999, before it was trendy. And to his credit, he takes the libertarian stand on most issues.

The trouble with Gary, however, is that his positions seem to be driven more by instinct than by a set of consistent principles or study on any subject. While this may not seem like a huge deal, it becomes apparent in debates and interviews on a regular basis. The end result is missteps that are likely to turn off disenfranchised Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. Some choice examples:

  • On the minimum wage in an interview with the Huffington Post:
    • Here, he's making the economic argument in a general way, which is fine. But then he literally says, "nobody works for minimum wage." This is obviously incorrect, and certain to be insulting to a left-leaning audience. On the contrary, the correct argument on this, to such an audience, is to emphasize that this policy is likely to make many poor worse off by reducing their employment opportunities and eliminating their ability to gain experience in the workforce. Meanwhile, if the same argument needs to be framed for a more conservative audience, the key is to emphasize freedom of contract and protecting the free market.
  • On the issue of climate change and whether government should do more about it, in the debate Saturday night (start at 41:00):
    • Here, Johnson ends up taking the correct libertarian position (that government shouldn't do anything else), but unfortunately his justification is factually and obviously incorrect. He claims that the free market shifted away from coal naturally as people voluntarily opt for less carbon-intensive fuels. While it's true that there has been a shift, it's wrong to claim the free market was a driver. In reality, increased regulations on the coal industry (and the threat of more in the future), in addition to incredibly low natural gas prices produced by the fracking boom, drove the shift away from coal. One of these is a market force, but the other is decidedly not. Here, by taking what might be seen as a middle ground (care about the issue but don't want government to fix it), he actually alienates both sides of the political spectrum. (His former competitor Austin Petersen, corrected the record immediately when it was his turn to answer the question in the debate.)
  • Worst of all, on the question of the Iran Deal, again in Saturday's debate (start at 1:07:00):
    • Here, Johnson starts out by saying he was initially for the deal, but then came to oppose it because he didn't want the US to give money to Iran, because the country finances terrorism. Of course, the money belongs to Iran already and relates to assets that were frozen (that is, confiscated) as a part of sanctions. Johnson's reply implied that he understood this fact, but he opposed it anyway. This is tantamount to believing the US should be able to steal from other countries if we dislike their foreign policy choices.

      Additionally, while it's true that Iran sponsors organizations that the US has labeled terrorist groups, it's also true that the main such group, Hezbollah, has also been one of the principal enemies of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. If standard Washington "enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic were to prevail on this subject, Iran, would actually be a natural ally in the current scenario. Obviously, I don't endorse any such alliance, but it just goes to show how shallow and misleading Johnson's characterization is. Furthermore, if financing terrorism were sufficient to justify abolishing trade with other countries, most of the US allies in the Middle East would be off-limits. Just as important, Iran's president ran on a platform of normalizing relations with the West precisely so he could improve Iran's domestic situation--so it's not at all clear how much of Iran's money will ultimately be spent on military efforts / terrorism anyway.

      Another problem here is how this contradicts Johnson's professed support for diplomacy and his skepticism of military intervention. Above everything else, the Iran Deal mattered because it moved the US further away from war with that country and was a step toward freer trade. The details make it even easier to support from an American perspective, but even just that broad outline should make it readily supportable from a libertarian, noninterventionist perspective. Thus, getting this issue wrong is likely to be a bridge too far for antiwar voters on the left and among libertarians (quite likely including yours truly). Yet because he wasn't hawkish enough, it's also unlikely to do him any favors among more conventional conservatives.
In short, the pattern is clear and depressing. Gary Johnson's left-leaning social tendencies make him most suited to appeal to Democrats that can't stand Hillary. But his free market leanings and gaffes could easily turn them off. On foreign policy, he's likely to more peaceful than Trump and Hillary because the bar is so low, but his principles can be abandoned on core issues, making him a no-go for antiwar voters. And then on economic issues, he will occasionally take the right position for the wrong reason.

Regrettably, Gary's running mate, Governor Bill Weld, is likely to make matters far worse. To prove this point, all one needs to do is survey the list of endorsements Weld has made over the past few cycles: George W. Bush in 2004 (for foreign policy, of all things), Barack Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 (that is, neither Ron Paul nor Gary Johnson), and initially John Kasich in 2016 until switching to become a libertarian. And to top it all off, Weld is known for being bad on gun control. Thus, as a practical matter, what this means is that any conservative that wasn't already alienated by Gary Johnson himself, will be successfully enraged by his vice president.

The end result is a ticket that finds a way to disappoint just about everyone in one way or another, without inspiring many in the process. This is seen as a pragmatic choice, but in reality, it's anything but. Johnson and Weld will likely manage to get in the debates, but as a libertarian myself, I'm deeply concerned how they will represent the ideas once they're there. The most probable outcome seems to be that the American people will be more familiar that libertarians exist, and more confused than ever about what they stand for.

Ultimately, the Libertarian Party has elected two compromise candidates, both of which are former politicians, in a year when much of the electorate despises compromise and politicians with equal fervor. And just as Rand Paul failed to garner sufficient support when he attempted to dilute the message of libertarianism, it is likely that Johnson and Weld will meet the same fate.

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