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Breaking News Alert David Harsanyi Rejoins The Federalist As Senior Editor

Why Isn’t Gary Johnson Doing Better?

gary johnson

Good morning to all of you who woke up bright and early to catch my appearance on Morning Joe this AM, particularly including Transom subscriber Mitch Daniels. It was another in a long series of “invite longtime Trump critic Ben onto morning show to be sole Trump defender amidst a sea of seven liberal critics,” an MSNBC favorite, with the upshot being that Joe accused me of “jogging around Washington, DC, in a Trump t-shirt.” I do not jog, or “yog” as I believe it’s pronounced.

But no matter – the point I made was that last night’s forum was awful for Hillary Clinton and showed the weakness she will have in the debates coming in the next few weeks. Anyone who was of a mind that Clinton was well prepared to defend her record as Secretary of State should be reconsidering that in the wake of last night’s performance, which showed her flustered and litigious about any question having to do with her record in office.  As one veteran put it last night: “Had I communicated this information not following prescribed protocols I would’ve been prosecuted and imprisoned.” Her answer was, as technically defined, gobbledygook.

One person who didn’t get a chance to participate in last night’s military forum is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president, who also was on Morning Joe today. I have not written much about Gov. Johnson in The Transom, mostly out of politeness – he is likely to be the person I ultimately vote for in the fall (I live in a state where the national election is nowhere close to being competitive), and it seems rude to bring up someone specifically for the purpose of criticizing him. But really, why is Gary Johnson doing so terribly in the polls? He is essentially a socially liberal and fiscally conservative candidate, which we’ve always been told was the way to go to appeal to the center of the country. He has a strong resume of executive achievement. He added another socially liberal fiscally conservative running mate, an experienced executive in Bill Weld. And yet there Johnson is, stuck at around 7-9% in nearly every poll. Why is Johnson not at least performing at Ross Perot levels, which were around 20% of the vote? Why is he not more competitive against Clinton and Trump? Why isn’t he able to even get to the 15% necessary to appear on the debate stage?

The latest CNN poll crushed those dreams on Johnson’s part, reducing his chances of making the debates significantly.  He would need to average 20% in the next three polls to make those televised events, which means he won’t even get the chance to make the case for his brand of libertarianism on the national stage. It has to be viewed as a monumental disappointment that the Johnson-Weld ticket, on the ballot in nearly every state and pitted against two historically hated candidates, cannot even make the debate stage. I’d like to see them there – but what does it mean that they aren’t?

It could mean that, as it turns out, the combination of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism that was the shorthand definition of libertarianism in the 1990s doesn’t have as much popularity as you might expect. Johnson and I have had a few conversations, and I was struck each time by how much he was stuck in a political dynamic that seemed to lack the updates of the past decade. These days, social liberalism means something very different than it did 15 years ago – instead of tolerance on gay issues, agreement with radical ideas on free speech, and acceptance of access to abortion, social liberalism today seems to be a lot more about redistribution of funds from people to pay for whatever you desire, plus an ability to shut down any speech that might offend. It’s possible that Johnson’s brand of social liberalism might have worked in the Nineties, but today it doesn’t satisfy either side of the culture war. Liberals find it dissatisfying because Johnson isn’t in favor of paying for the things they want others to pay for, and conservatives find it dissatisfying because Johnson is always going on about how religious liberty is a “black hole” and how the government can’t allow discrimination of any kind.

My own preference for a Libertarian Party candidate this cycle would’ve been someone more satisfying to the Mormons and religious conservatives who’ve been reluctant to back Trump, a candidate closer to the right on speech and religious liberty – a Justin Amash would’ve been interesting – but who’s to say they’d be performing better? (I think they’d be performing better, but that’s an untestable proposition.) Perhaps things are just too ingrained these days with R v. D.

Now, to be fair, perhaps it’s not some broad problem with Johnson’s brand of libertarianism. Perhaps the problem is Johnson himself, who was the number one trending topic on Twitter after his performance this morning, with the hashtag #WhatIsAleppo. The video is painful to watchHere’s what was said.

‘What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?’ MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ panelist Mike Barnicle asked the former New Mexico governor during an in-studio interview Thursday morning.

‘And what is Aleppo?’ Johnson responded.

‘You’re kidding,’ a stunned Barnicle replied, to which Johnson answered that he was not.

Barnicle explained to the Libertarian candidate that Aleppo is ‘the epicenter of the refugee crisis’ in Syria, giving Johnson enough information to finally answer the question.

‘Okay, Got it. Well, with regard to Syria, I do think that it’s a mess,’ he said. ‘I think the only way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia to diplomatically bring that at an end but when we’ve aligned ourselves with — when we have supported the opposition, the Free Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army is also coupled with the Islamists, and then the fact that we’re also supporting the Kurds and this is, it’s just a mess. And this is the result of regime change that we end up supporting and, inevitably, these regime changes have led to a less safe world.’

Johnson may not be catching fire because his political positioning is no longer where the country would like to be. He may not be catching fire because his secular appeal overlaps too much with two of the most secular candidates in modern memory, or because his views are not receiving a fair hearing by a media conversation too devoted to analyzing Hillary v. Trump. But he also may not be catching fire because despite his resume, he does not come across as a serious person well-prepared for the presidency. Say what you will about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but at least they are good at pretending they know things. Perhaps that’s Johnson’s real defect – he’s just too honest about what he doesn’t understand.