The Libertarian Presidential Debate Was A Little-Noticed Breath Of Fresh Air

The Libertarian Presidential Debate Was A Little-Noticed Breath Of Fresh Air

The frontrunners for the biggest two political parties are widely loathed. But Libertarian candidates have a chicken-or-egg problem with media and public attention.
Lucy Steigerwald
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A clickbait expert, a former fugitive from Belize law enforcement and virus scan software wizard, and a pot-smoking former governor step onto a Fox Business Network stage. In an election season starring two historically loathed frontrunners, the third-most-popular party in the United States got a televised debate for the very first time. Progress sometimes looks like John Stossel asking if it is okay to compel bakeries to make gay or Nazi wedding cakes. (Austin Petersen and John McAfee: no to the bakery question. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson: yes.)

It’s not as if even the libertarian-tolerant FBN was going to give the contenders much to work with. Friday’s debate was pre-taped, and only part one of the two-hour show (part two is on Friday!). Still, it was a debate not starring the usual suspects, right or left, and man does that look good for a change.

The LP’s presidential choice this year will be likely be a repeat, as it should be. However, competition is libertarian, so joining Johnson, 63, on stage were 35-year-old website founder Petersen and 70-year-old former antivirus pioneer McAfee, there to explain their positions on issues from abortion to war to Social Security and the social safety net. Even if the results of the experiment were open only to those with cable access, they were also more charming, warm, and spontaneous than anything the major parties can drum up.

The Libertarian Candidates on the Issues and Records

Each candidate supports caution and constitutionality in warfare. Each disavows the war on drugs and the death penalty. McAfee suggested Social Security and foreign aid were promises made, and therefore they can’t be reneged on. Johnson and Petersen argued otherwise.

On abortion, Petersen said he was pro-life. Johnson and McAfee believe the matter is up to the woman. Petersen, who has spent some time scorning antiwar libertarians on his clickbaity website, appears to have decided on a new tactic that might be called Ron Paul lite. He comes off as a kid in his dad’s suit who just discovered French economist Frederic Bastiat—and not just because he’s the youngest, or “12 years old,” as Stossel put it. However, he delivered good lines, such as “if the American people have to balance their checkbook, so should Congress.”

McAfee’s flight from Belizean authorities seemed to impress Johnson, however, who walked over and kissed McAfee on the cheek after Stossel asked about the incidents.

Perhaps Sen. Ted Cruz supporters might find Petersen appealing, especially if they’re frustrated by Cruz’ recent soul-selling mainstream successes, or his likely loss in the race for the GOP nomination.

McAfee is the oddest duck, a fascinating contrast between Petersen’s straining efforts at radical constitutionalism and Gary Johnson’s dispassionate moderate (for the LP) manner. McAfee’s early life included a great deal of drug use. His more recent history includes fleeing from Belize because he was a “person of interest” in his neighbor’s murder in 2012.

Stossel—in perhaps the world’s most diplomatic use of the word “flakey”—asked McAfee about the murder accusations and allegations of drug manufacturing, as well as a 2015 intoxicated driving arrest back in the states. McAfee said he was innocent of drug manufacturing and murder, but afraid of authorities who had previously shot his dog after he refused to give the government of Belize a bribe. The DUI was his own mistake.

These answers may not satisfy people who have read about McAfee’s Hunter S. Thompson-ish—or allegedly William Walker-like—jungle living in Wired magazine. McAfee’s flight from Belizean authorities seemed to impress Johnson, however, who walked over and kissed McAfee on the cheek after Stossel asked about the incidents. The small audience cheered.

Johnson Is Still the Leader

Maybe his gun-toting hippie with gravitas thing could leech votes away from Sen. Bernie Sanders, or his thoughtful weirdo thing could steal Trump votes. However, fair or not, governor kiss or not, McAfee’s personal life makes him a dubious choice for LP nominee. Strangely, his stances on entitlements and foreign aid is a bit too timid for a libertarian audience, while his paranoia about cyber war and offer to unlock the San Bernardino terrorist’ phone for the FBI makes him come across as less than pure on Fourth Amendment issues.

Johnson seems like a human being, both on television and in real life.

The choice is Gary Johnson. Even if there’s something a little uninspiring about him, he hit 1 percent of the vote in 2012, which was the LP’s best showing since Ed Clark and David Koch almost won a million votes in 1980. He could at least repeat that, and probably beat it, even if Johnson tends to sound nervous whenever he talks about anything.

With two terms as the governor of New Mexico, Johnson lies in the sweet spot between overly Republican Bob Barr (LP nominee in 2008) and doesn’t-believe-in-drivers-licenses Michael Badnarik (2004). Johnson seems like a human being, both on television and in real life. He is a moderate anti-interventionist, and is pro marijuana, not denying the fact that he indulges in the substance, and even serving as the CEO of a medical marijuana company. His utter lack of apology for using marijuana, combined with his crazy-fit personal life (he’s climbed the seven summits!) may actually make pot users look better, as opposed to making Johnson look worse.

What Winning Means for Libertarians

What would winning—or even improving—look like for the Libertarian Party in 2016? Well, spoiling something for somebody. Johnson might just be free-trade friendly enough for conservatives, and socially liberal enough for some liberals. This could the LP’s big year. However, the likelihood of him making any nation-shaking stride, even in the weirdest election this millennium, seems unlikely.

The likelihood of Johnson making any nation-shaking stride, even in the weirdest election this millennium, seems unlikely.

A Monmouth University poll had the former governor earning a shocking 11 percent in a three-way race with Trump and Clinton, and harming her more than him. Genuine liberals might be able to bite the bullet and cast a vote for him, at least if they care about war, the death penalty, or drug policy and see little to like in candidate Clinton.

However, that probably means on a good Tuesday in November, Johnson could sneak away with 5 percent or something relatively mind-blowing. That would be an unprecedented libertarian victory. That, sadly, is how you count libertarian electoral victories, in one percents. In one millions.

Johnson currently is suing over his lack of inclusion in the national presidential debates, which mandate at least 15 percent polling. He wonders rightly how he is to get such support if he isn’t handed the magical media attention that comes with debate presence.

Most respondees to the Monmouth University poll didn’t have a positive or negative opinion of Johnson either way. In an election that is heading towards two loathed nominees or a broken Republican Party, and a surly youth vote that may decline to show up for Clinton, Johnson’s mere status as an unknown might help.

On the other hand, if he can’t get in the real debates, and Stossel is all he has, it’s hard to picture any fickle folks remembering to cast their vote for Johnson in November. Even the bizarre spectacle that is frontrunner Trump doesn’t prove that the people are ready to flip the table entirely and elect someone as pleasantly pro-freedom as Johnson.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. She previously worked at Reason magazine, and wrote a column for VICE.com about police and legal issues. Steigerwald's work has also appeared at Rare, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post.com, and other outlets. She blogs at TheStagBlog.com and tweets @lucystag.

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