The Libertarian Party nominee can benefit from Trump’s fall, but only if he can convince Republicans and Democrats that he can really be commander in chief.
How does Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president currently averaging around 7 percent in national polls, plan to benefit from “pussygate,” the release of disturbing audio of Donald Trump discussing his treatment of women?
In an interview conducted the day after the second presidential debate (listen here), he tells me disgruntled and disgusted Republicans are now coming his way despite his staunch support of abortion rights, marriage equality, open borders, and pot legalization. And given ongoing revelations from WikiLeaks that show Hillary Clinton’s fondness for holding radically different positions in “private” and “public,” he’s targeting hypocrisy wherever he finds it.
But if he’s going to do more than simply cover the growing spread between Clinton and Trump, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico is also going to have reverse the perception that he is out of his depth when it comes to foreign policy and commanding the military. Alone among the leading candidates in calling for cuts in defense spending and restraint and “skepticism” when it comes military interventions, he’s also made high-profile gaffes related to foreign affairs and has been likened to Don Knotts, the actor famous for playing hapless, nebbishy characters in sitcoms such as The Andy Griffith Show and movies such as The Shakiest Gun in the West. Until doubts about his foreign policy acumen are overcome, it will be an uphill climb, even for a 63-year-old triathlete who’s climbed Mt. Everest.
We’ll get to foreign policy, but first, let’s note that Trump’s apparent free fall gives Johnson an opening, especially with traditionalist GOP voters who are barely putting up with the billionaire in the first place. “I have never engaged in that sort of conversation that degrades women,” Johnson tells me, adding that those who do “should not be aspiring to becoming president of the United States.” When the Trump tape surfaced, Johnson issued a strongly worded condemnation that reminded folks of his former party affiliation: “Millions of Republicans are facing a moment of truth. As a former Republican Governor, I don’t envy them.” In a report from Albuquerque’s KOAT he claimed that “dozens of GOP officials” had contacted his campaign after the tapes surfaced, saying that they wanted to know how to help his effort. He reiterated that in our interview but declined to give any specific names when I pressed him. “Naming names of those politicians who are considering endorsing us—and I have to believe many of them will—I’m going to protect the innocent [for now],” he said.
It’s totally plausible that Republican voters disgusted by Trump would decide to cast their ballots for him. His promise to submit a balanced budget via spending cuts to Congress within 100 days of taking office has always appealed to fiscal conservatives, and his tax-cutting, penny-pinching record in New Mexico—and that of his running mate, Bill Weld, a two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts—might make up for the ticket’s apostasies on social issues. But until at least some of those “dozens of GOP officials” go public with their support, it’s not clear how much difference it will make.
Indeed, throughout the race so far, most polls actually showed Johnson pulling more support from Clinton than Trump. Clinton has even targeted Johnson as a threat, especially among millennials where her support is relatively soft and his has been relatively strong.
As Trump falls, Johnson’s appeal to voters leaning toward Clinton might rise, especially if they now see her lead as safe, thus allowing them to cast a protest vote. Revelations by WikiLeaks from the so-called Podesta emails portray Clinton in a harsh light, with her telling private audiences that we need to “resist protectionism [and] other kinds of barriers to market access and to trade” even as she has become increasingly critical of both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Despite campaigning on a promise to expand old-age entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, in other settings she said the government needs to “restrain spending” and embrace the reform framework put forth by the commission run by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, which called for cuts to benefits. During the most recent presidential debate, she didn’t disown those views and instead stumbled through an explanation of her belief that “ you need both a public and a private position” on important policy questions.
“Hypocrisy is the one unforgivable thing—saying one thing and doing another,” Johnson tells me, pointing toward both Trump and Clinton as prime examples. “I’ve always lived by the credo that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. You acknowledge mistakes and there’s no quicker way to fix them by acknowledging them.”
The talk of owning mistakes brings us to Johnson and foreign policy. In early September, he blanked on a question about Aleppo, Syria on MSNBC by Daily Beast contributor Mike Barnicle. His puzzled response, “What is Aleppo?,” became a Twitter joke and meme. Not long after that, he stumbled when asked by Chris Matthews to name a foreign leader he admires and compounded the problem by saying he was “having an Aleppo moment.”
Such gaffes didn’t just confirm the worst fears of conservative and liberal hawks. I spoke recently with a millennial journalist who voted for Johnson in 2012, is a dedicated #NeverTrumper, and doesn’t want to vote for Clinton this time around. He even agrees with Johnson’s skepticism toward military interventions, but he’s worried that the guy has no idea of what’s going on outside America’s borders. The one thing that would bring him around to Johnson, he said, was if the former governor showed some depth when discussing foreign policy.
When I raise this with Johnson, he dismisses the idea that being able to rattle off the names of world leaders and geographic locations is any sort of sign that your military strategies are worth a damn. He emphatically “takes exception” to the idea he couldn’t identify North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, or a single foreign leader he admires, insisting, “I still can’t name a leader I really respect.” But “I’m talking specifically here about Hillary Clinton,” he says. The idea that “being able to dot i’s and cross t’s [on names and places] qualifies you to put our men and servicewomen in harm’s way” is pure bunk, he says. “They end up dying, hurt, maimed, psychologically impacted for the rest of their lives, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people end up dying in these conflicts…that’s what upsets me so much.”
He continues: “We need a skeptic in the White House to actually untangle all of what is happening in the world.” When it comes to Syria, Johnson stresses that because he’s not receiving national security, he can only guess at all the promises that the United States has made to various factions but that “the only way out…is to join hands with Russia diplomatically.” You may not agree with his particular solutions to particular situations, but he doesn’t come across as Barney Fife in conversation. He argues that our interventions in the 21st century have left the Middle East and Central Asia less stable, failed to achieve goals (partly because goals were never clearly established) and that military spending, which is still 50 percent higher in real dollars than it was in 2001, can be cut without sacrificing homeland security. He’s insistent also that Congress step up and do its job of actually authorizing wars and paying for them.
Last week, Johnson gave a major foreign policy speech that was as substantive as it was little-noted (it turns out that third-party candidates are more popular with the press when they are goofy than when they are credible). That speech goes a long way toward addressing the perception that Johnson is a gadfly, even as it sharpens the distance between options such as Hillary Clinton, who has a track record of supporting virtually every intervention of the past 20 years, and Donald Trump, who talks promiscuously of “bombing the shit” out of countries and calling for torture of terrorists. “Show me an America with less debt, greater economic strength, and robust trade relationships across the globe, and I will show you a safer, more secure, America,” said Johnson in his speech. “Terrorism and the threat from extremists are real. But our approach to those threats must be real as well. The notion that we will someday celebrate V-I Day, Victory over ISIS, is both naive and misleading. It won’t happen. What must, and I believe, will, happen is that we focus our resources on isolating the extremists, containing them, and starving them of the funds and support they must have to mount large-scale attacks. Tens of thousands of boots on the ground won’t do it. Dropping bombs on the other side of the globe won’t do it. And pretending that some military-style Global War on Terror will bring about a clear victory is not realistic.”
Whether such an approach allows Johnson to pull Republican voters disgusted by Donald Trump’s generally unhinged behavior on the one hand and ongoing revelations about Hillary Clinton’s policy hypocrisy on the other is an open question. But there’s little question that the Libertarian has followed his own counsel, owned his mistakes, and put forth a set of proposals worth taking seriously.