For those who advocate liberty, this is a frightening election year. The next president is likely to be Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State played fast and loose with sensitive government information, who seems to have used her official position to generate “Clinton cash,” who parrots the anti-producer rhetoric of “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, and who wants to radically weaken the First and Second Amendments—or Donald Trump, whose loutish, anti-capitalist nativism almost makes Clinton seem like the voice of reason by contrast.
Given the sorry state of the major parties, and given that the Libertarian Party has nominated someone eminently more qualified than Trump for the presidency, the question naturally arises: Should liberty advocates support the Libertarian, Gary Johnson? We begin to answer this question by evaluating the candidates in terms of policy.
The Candidates on Foreign Policy
In my view, Johnson is the strongest candidate now in the race for the presidency in terms of qualifications and platform. Trump has almost no relevant qualifications and a largely horrid platform. Johnson, a two-term governor from New Mexico, has the only serious executive-level experience of any of the candidates.
On paper, Clinton looks highly qualified, with experience in the Senate and as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. Obviously Clinton beats out Johnson in terms of experience dealing with foreign policy; there Johnson has no relevant experience.
Clinton’s experience in foreign policy, however, cuts against her, too. I’m extremely skeptical of the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, which Clinton strongly supported. And Clinton’s work in Libya hardly counts in her favor. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the Obama administration’s 2011 intervention in Libya, promoted primarily by Clinton, went disastrously wrong, destabilizing the region and empowering terrorists. And Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack on the Benghazi diplomatic compound and its aftermath are extremely troubling. That Clinton blamed the attack on an “internet video” is shameful.
If Johnson has no accomplishments to speak of regarding foreign policy, at least he hasn’t left any foreign policy situation FUBAR.
How Johnson might govern with respect to foreign policy is largely a matter of guesswork. Obviously he would be much less inclined than Clinton to intervene militarily in affairs of foreign nations. How he would govern would depend largely on the military experts with whom he surrounded himself, and I have no idea who those people might be.
Johnson has said mainly what he is against regarding foreign policy—nation-building and the like—not what he is for. For example, his web page states:
As President, Gary Johnson will move quickly and decisively to refocus U.S. efforts and resources to attack the real threats we face in a strategic, thoughtful way. The U.S. must get serious about cutting off the millions of dollars that are flowing into the extremists’ coffers every day. Relationships with strategic allies must be repaired and reinforced. And the simplistic options of “more boots on the ground” and dropping more bombs must be replaced with strategies that will isolate and ultimately neuter those who would, if able, destroy the very liberties on which this nation is founded.
So he’s going to be “strategic” and “thoughtful”; how insightful. What would his strategies be? How would he “repair” alliances, and what good would that do? How would he “neuter” Islamic State and other terrorist organizations without using military force? How would he keep potential aggression of Russia and China in check?
With respect to the potential of a Johnson presidency, my fear is the same as it is with Bernie Sanders. I worry that, with a president perceived as inexperienced and slow to act, America’s enemies and antagonists quickly would step up to the lines in the sand and see how fast those lines can be redrawn. Paradoxically, the candidates who least want to deal with foreign policy might, by virtue of that fact, turn foreign policy into an explosively dangerous situation and become consumed by it. I think the candidate in the race most likely to give Vladimir Putin and his ilk a moment’s pause is Clinton.
My sense of Johnson is that he does have the mental and emotional maturity to handle foreign policy. I think that, if he immediately surrounded himself with serious people and communicated that he’s serious about commanding the military might of the United States, he could potentially move America’s foreign policy in a better direction.
Contrast Johnson with Trump, to whom no sane person would entrust leadership of the most powerful military force in human history. Seriously, who the hell knows what Trump might do with respect to foreign policy? Clinton’s evaluation of Trump is exactly right: “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes—because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.” I’m not sure there has ever been a president who has been more spectacularly out of his depth with respect to foreign policy than Trump would be.
The most notable thing about Trump’s speech on foreign policy is how much of it is rambling, incoherent nonsense—in a speech written down for him by others. Anyway, we always have to doubt how many of the talking points delivered to him by advisors Trump actually believes or even cares to understand.
It’s worth noting that, ideologically, Clinton, Johnson, and Trump are closer regarding foreign policy than might be immediately apparent. Essentially, they are all of a pragmatic bent, with Clinton more likely to intervene for the sake of (hoped for) global stability, Trump more likely to intervene because his taco salad was too spicy, and Johnson less likely to intervene than the others. No candidate advocates the sort of aggressively pro-American foreign policy that, say, Craig Biddle advocates. Whereas Clinton wanted to cut a deal with Iran and Johnson wants to freeze Iran’s assets, Biddle would “eliminate the Iranian regime” with an all-out military assault. Arguably, Johnson’s foreign policy would be most similar to Obama’s of any of the candidates.
Given that former Republican Johnson is on the Libertarian ticket, we can ask how he reacts to the usual Libertarian stance of non-intervention. Brian Doherty’s review gives us some indication. Doherty notes that Johnson strays from “the general ‘no intervention outside the national borders ever’ Libertarian consensus.” Although Johnson will not sanction the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, neither will he condemn it, as many Libertarians do. Johnson says he’s not sure whether the United States should have entered either World War. In short, Johnson is out of his depth when it comes to foreign policy but not a hardline Libertarian.
Johnson’s Domestic Policy
I think most people have a pretty good idea of what the domestic policies of Clinton and Trump would look like. Clinton would try to raise taxes, expand social programs, pass whatever anti-gun laws she could manage, and enable censorship of political speech. Trump would try to build a wall along the boarder of Mexico, restrict trade, restrict immigration, maybe lower taxes here or there while increasing spending (but who the hell really knows), maybe nominate “conservative” Supreme Court justices (and maybe not), and (in case you forgot) build a wall, an absolutely yuge wall, to be financed by the Mexican government (yeah, right).
Johnson likely would accomplish very little regarding domestic policy with zero Libertarian members of Congress to work with him. He could wield his veto pen to stop or hinder legislation he doesn’t like. He could rescind executive orders and issue new ones. Importantly, he could nominate various judges and fill various bureaucratic positions. Johnson’s Supreme Court picks very likely would be genuine constitutionalists who would stand up to abuses of government power.
I think Johnson’s suggestion to replace the income tax with a consumption tax is dangerously naive; almost certainly the consumption tax would be added to an income tax.
Oddly, Johnson fails to defend liberty on just the issue that might have gotten him a second look from religious conservatives: discrimination by private businesses against homosexuals. I think Johnson can be partly excused for this stance because, first, it’s not anything over which a president has control and, second, the so-called “religious liberty” laws in question give a specific group (the religious) special legal protection, rather than protect every business owner’s rights equally.
In general, I agree with maybe 90 percent of Johnson’s domestic agenda. He has described himself as fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and I think that’s exactly how he’d govern. What you see is what you get: He’ll seek to lower taxes, cut regulations, scale back the drug war, and generally try to refasten the chains of the Constitution to the federal government.
There’s a decent chance that, if elected, Johnson would easily become the best president in my lifetime.
An Unelectable Libertarian
Johnson is in my view clearly the superior candidate now in the race. He’s a decent person, which puts him head and shoulders above his competitors; his foreign policy would be certainly better than Trump’s and likely no worse than Clinton’s; and his domestic policy would be dramatically more pro-liberty.
But none of this indicates that a liberty advocate should support Johnson for president.
The first fact with which we must grapple is that Johnson is unelectable. It’s sad, but the best candidate in the race will come in third, and a very distant third. But might he have momentum? After all, he is polling at 10 percent. True, this year Johnson might pick up quite a few discontented Republicans. But, judging from 2012, when Johnson polled as high as 5.1% yet earned only 1 percent of the final vote, he likely will pull fewer votes than what he is polling.
If Johnson manages to get himself into the debates by polling more than 15 percent, which I doubt he can do, he might start to earn some serious media attention and become a widespread protest vote. But even if that happens, the final result will be the same: a distant third-place finish, only slightly less distant. (It has occurred to me that Clinton might do well to shun Trump and offer to debate only Johnson, but surely that won’t happen.)
A second important fact here is that Johnson is a Libertarian. If he were running as an independent, I’d have no problem whatsoever voting for him as a protest.
But, because he is running as a Libertarian, to the extent that Johnson is successful, he will advance that party. And that’s a bad thing.
The Libertarian Party should be allowed to die off, hopefully with its better members joining liberty groups within the major parties. Indeed, if true liberty advocates had abandoned the Libertarian Party years ago and become active in the Republican Party, maybe today we’d be talking about someone like Johnson or Ted Cruz (who at least is pro-liberty on economic issues) leading the party, rather than Trump.
Besides being a minor party in a two-party system, the Libertarian Party is now and always has been deeply influenced by horrible ideas, most importantly moral subjectivism and political anarchism. This is the party, for example, that not once but twice ran an anarchist (Harry Browne) for president.
[I]t is impossible to support Johnson as a Libertarian candidate without promoting the Libertarian Party itself, and that party undermines the very foundation of individual rights. . . . By lending his credibility to a party that often tolerates (or even glorifies) anarchism, blames America for Islamist assaults against us, and embraces moral subjectivism and outright craziness, Johnson sullies the case for liberty by muddying it with antithetical ideas.
Although many Libertarians (including Johnson) favor the existence of government (how odd to have to write those words), the pervasive sentiment coming out of the Libertarian Party (and the broader libertarian movement) is that government is always bad, to be restrained wherever possible if it cannot be abolished. That is why, for example, Libertarians can so rarely find an example of military action of which they approve. It is no exaggeration to say that Libertarians frequently sound exactly like the Ward Churchill left, blaming the United States for jihadist attacks on Americans (and the like).
Because Libertarians tend to see and describe government as inherently evil, they open themselves up to all sorts of legitimate attacks by their critics. On issues including intellectual property and the use of military force, Libertarians seem either crazy in rejecting government or defensive in accepting it piecemeal. That’s the essence of why I think the Libertarian Party in the main never will be anything other than a party of kooks and cranks.
The fact that Johnson is an unelectable Libertarian raises important questions about whether liberty advocates should support him, even though otherwise he is far and away the best candidate in the race from a liberty perspective.
To Support or Not to Support
Unless something near-miraculous happens, Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States—and she will win by a large margin. Trump piles fiasco on fiasco—the latest is him calling a judge in the case of Trump University a “Mexican”—and I think this will sink his candidacy. So I don’t think it really matters, at least in terms of the outcome in November, which candidate liberty advocates support or whether they support any candidate.
What matters, then, is the future influence of one’s current political activism.
Arguably, this year Johnson is bigger than the Libertarian Party such that he largely escapes its problems. I think a liberty advocate can reasonably argue, “I’m voting for Johnson because of his record and policy positions, not because he’s a Libertarian, and voting for him this year as a protest will send a strong message to the Republican Party that it needs to shape up—or be replaced by a viable liberty party.”
But I think voting for Clinton, voting for another minor-party or independent candidate, or not voting in the presidential race would send a similar message.
The key is for people who cast a protest vote, whatever its form, to clearly and publicly articulate why they are casting a protest vote. It is the public articulation, not the vote itself, that is most important in terms of influencing the future direction of American politics.
Of course, some liberty advocates will hold their noses and vote for Trump, because “Hillary!” and “Supreme Court!” I don’t think such a vote is defensible, but such voters can mostly expiate their sins by declaring publicly that they condemn Trump and are pulling the lever for him only to avoid (they think) even worse problems.
A Missed Opportunity
On December 28, 2011, after flailing in the Republican race for the presidency, Johnson announced he was leaving the GOP to run for president as a Libertarian. Imagine if instead he had joined or formed an independent or Republican-affiliated pro-liberty organization to promote the sort of policies that made Johnson a successful Republican governor. He might have been able to help push the GOP in a better direction such that it avoided this year’s catastrophe. He could have threatened an independent run and pursued it assuming Trump still got the nomination.
In that scenario, Johnson still would not have positioned himself to become president of the United States. But he would have been able to seriously influence the future of the Republican Party for the better, rather than continue to help drain liberty activists out of it.
But the past cannot be changed, and Johnson apparently sees no problem with riding the Libertarian horse.
The rest of us must play with the cards dealt. Regardless of how and whether one votes and otherwise participates in party politics this year, Johnson’s run offers a good opportunity to point out the serious defects of Clinton and Trump, to discuss what genuinely pro-liberty policies would look like, and to advocate a new direction for the Republican Party (or else its replacement).
I suspect it will be a long five months until the election, and then a long four years until the Republicans have an opportunity to do better. For liberty advocates, the only solace to be found is that crisis is opportunity.
Image: Gage Skidmore