Johnson and Weld will need to overcome some of their party’s more colorful positions
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
(CFP) –The Libertarian Party met over Memorial Day weekend in Orlando, deciding to invest its fortunes with two former Republican governors, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts.
For a third party in America, that’s an unusually high-powered pedigree. And given the deep unpopularity of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Libertarians left Florida with high hopes of a breakthrough in 2016, particularly if their ticket can get into the fall debates.
But the height of the hurdle that Johnson and Weld face became apparent during the party’s presidential debate, when the candidates were asked if states should be able to issue driver’s licenses.
One after another, the candidates emphatically said no—except Johnson, who pointed out that it might not be such a bad idea for the government to make sure that people roaming around on the roadways have been vetted for basic competency.
Johnson was booed.
Here are some other statements made during the debate: Crystal meth should be as legal as tomatoes. Public education should be abolished. The Pentagon should be funded with bake sales. The second-place finisher in the presidential race, Austin Peterson, even opined that in the future, he hoped that gay people will not only be able to marry but to defend their marijuana fields with assault rifles.
And the vice presidential votes were being tabulated, a candidate for the party chairmanship took the stage, turned on some music and stripped down to his skivvies. That’s probably something we won’t see this summer in Philadelphia or Cleveland.
It was all rather entertaining, and, unlike in the Democratic and Republican contests, there was a marked absence of personal attacks between the candidates. Good for them. The question, however, is whether these positions can advance a run for the White House. Or is rigid ideological consistency the hobgoblin of electoral success?
The key to victory for any political party is to cobble together enough broad constituency groups to reach critical mass. But the Libertarians’ mishmash of unusual positions is likely to subtract from their coalition, not add to it.
For instance, religious conservatives, particularly in the South, aren’t going to cotton to their support for legalizing drugs or the fact that Johnson quit his job as head of a cannabis company to run for president. National security conservatives are going to find it difficult to get behind a militantly non-interventionist foreign policy and a drastically downsized military.
Likewise, Bernie Sanders supporters turned off by Clinton will be wary of a party that wants to eliminate virtually all social programs, turning instead to voluntary charity to take care of the old, the sick and the poor. They’re also going to have problems with a party that is as zealous in defending gun rights as the NRA.
Johnson and Weld, with their political pedigrees, may be able to transcend some of this baggage. Indeed, during the debate, Johnson often seemed to be the voice of reason, as when he said he would have signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (for which he was also booed.)
Certainly, Johnson can’t be held responsible for all the wild things Libertarians say, just as Republicans can’t all be held responsible for some of Trump’s more incendiary utterances. But if he and Weld distance themselves from some of the more outlandish positions of their party, they are going to draw ire from their own partisans, who proved in Orlando that they take a rather dim view of apostasy.
The Libertarians’ fondest hope is that Johnson can get to 15 percent in the polls, getting him into the debates. Then, the American public will see him as a viable alternative to Trump and Clinton, and he will catch fire, propelling Libertarians, if not to the White House, then at least to major party status.
But this presupposes that voters’ dislike of the major party nominees will be strong enough to overshadow what it is that the Libertarian Party actually believes. And Johnson has another hurdle—convincing voters he can run the country without a single member of his party in Congress. He would be forced to make an unending series of compromises with Republicans and Democrats, and compromise is something to which his party seems particularly allergic.
Of course, we have come to expect the unexpected during this topsy-turvy 2016 campaign, in which a socialist and a reality TV star are two of the last three major party candidates standing. So maybe, just maybe, Johnson and Weld can pull of the miracle. But if they do, it will be in spite of the Libertarians’ colorful positions, rather than because of them.