In a Presidential election year when we have heard so much dissatisfaction with voters’ expected choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Libertarian National Convention held this weekend assumes greater importance. As expected, the convention nominated former Republican governors Gary Johnson and William Weld as the Libertarian candidates for President and Vice President. Speculation is that the party could have a record performance this year if it picks up votes from Democrats and Republicans unhappy with Clinton and Trump. So what does the party’s convention tell us about who Libertarians are and what chance they have to make an impact in the 2016 election?
I watched about 10 hours of the convention – basically all of it that was covered by C-SPAN. This included a two and a half hour debate among 5 candidates for the party’s Presidential nomination, and the nomination proceedings for both President and Vice-President. For political junkies like myself, the Libertarian gathering stands in stark contrast to the major party conventions, which in my lifetime have been stage-managed, sterile and predictable affairs with less drama than a sewing circle. If nothing else, the Libertarian convention reeked of authenticity. There was little playing to the cameras, apart from some entertainingly cheeky repetitions of the party’s website and phone number (“Point of information, Mr. Chair, I seem to have lost the note where I wrote down the party’s web site, could you repeat that please?”)
And the proceedings clearly were not scripted. Both the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominations required two ballots, and the proceedings were frequently interrupted by various points of order, information, and personal privilege. I was impressed by the convention chair, Nicholas Sarwark (also the party chairman), who exuded professionalism, patience, and good humor as he attempted to herd a room of about 1,000 cats. Many of the points raised by the delegates were clearly out of order, but Sarwark often chose to allow them anyway, reasoning that it would be faster and simpler to do so rather than standing on parliamentary procedure. This strategy worked well for the most part, but it was when Sarwark had to temporarily hand off the gavel to his deputies that things got a little rowdier. Representing a polar opposite side of the party’s character from Sarwark, one delegate managed to get himself added to the ballot for party chairman just so that, in lieu of a nomination speech, he could (and did) perform a striptease on the podium live on camera. Perhaps nothing illustrates the party’s deep commitment to personal freedom more than the fact that no one made any attempt to stop this, despite later reactions from aghast and embarrassed delegates.
The contrast is a pretty good metaphor for the party as a whole. It often resembles nothing quite so much as Monty Python’s fictional “Slightly Silly Party”; stretches of serious approaches to the nation’s problems punctuated by eruptions from nutjobs, radicals, and goofballs. Even Johnson, who served two generally well-regarded terms as Governor of New Mexico, has a goofy side to him, as evidenced by a pattern of unexpectedly cheek-kissing debate rivals and even reporters. Yet upon reflection, there are plenty of nutjobs, radicals and goofballs in the major parties also. The difference is that the major parties do a much better job of hiding them from the media.
It would be a mistake to allow the occasional circus-like atmosphere to overshadow the wellspring of intelligence, thoughtfulness, integrity and a deep-seated devotion to the Constitution that burbles at the heart of the Libertarian party. There is no doubt in my mind that the average delegate at the Libertarian convention would destroy their Democrat or Republican counterparts in any contest of civic knowledge. And these are people who maintain their principles so strongly that they would rather shoot themselves in the foot time and time again from an image perspective rather than wear the stain of hypocrisy. If nothing else, that aspect alone offers a refreshing choice for voters in the fall, by which time the party expects to be on the ballot in all 50 states. For the party’s wiser heads, the goal is not so much to win the White House – highly unlikely – but to bring unprecedented media attention to their socially liberal, fiscally conservative platform of minimal government and hopefully expand the membership and influence of the party toward a future role something like Britain’s Liberal Democrats.
The party’s greatest challenge this year is to break the glass ceiling that has usually kept third party candidates out of the presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a joint creation of the Republican and Democratic parties, has set a bar of 15 percent support in major polls for the inclusion of any third-party candidate. Johnson and Weld have recently polled around 10 percent (when they have been included in polls at all), so it is not inconceivable that they could pass this bar. Johnson is not a great debater, but the national exposure that comes with being on the debate stage is exactly what the Libertarian party needs.
At the very least, doesn’t America deserve the enjoyment of watching Clinton and Trump squirm as Johnson points out how similar they really are?