A Missed Opportunity For Libertarians
As Chris Cuomo welcomed him to CNN’s “Libertarian Town Hall” last Wednesday, the first words out of Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s mouth were: “Thank you—what an opportunity.”
Over the next hour and 15 minutes, Johnson proceeded to blow that opportunity sky high.
After the perfunctory “what is a libertarian and who the heck are you?” question, where we learned that libertarianism is being “socially accepting,” the first signs of trouble cropped up when Cuomo started getting into what he called the “state of play” on the campaign trail. What does Johnson think of Hillary Clinton’s charge that Donald Trump “is not a legitimate businessman”?
Here was the perfect opportunity to give a libertarian spin on what is basically a Clintonian canard, by pointing out Trump’s promiscuous use of eminent domain to further his own economic interests. Remember that little old lady who stood up to The Donald and wouldn’t surrender her beloved old home to one of his vulgar casinos? Johnson might have used that as an illustration of what should be his campaign theme: the right of the lone individual to stand up against the depredations of the crony-capitalist state—while also pointing out that Hillary isn’t against eminent domain in principle.
Instead, he demurred, looking uncomfortable while mumbling, “You know, I leave that to others,” and making irrelevant comments about immigration, free trade, and killing the families of terrorists. Cuomo, looking somewhat baffled—after all, he had just lobbed Johnson a slow ball and the candidate had refused to swing—remarked that “the state of play” is surely relevant. He was obviously unaware of the fact that libertarians are most comfortable talking about principles in the abstract; when it comes to actually applying them, they tend to get antsy.
Cuomo, undeterred, lobbed him another softball: “The return from Trump was that Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt person to ever run for president. Is that a view that you would embrace?”
This is when the first real signs of trouble emerged: “That is not a view that I would embrace,” answered Johnson, somewhat loftily. “I don’t think either of us are going to engage in any sort of name-calling. We’re going to keep this to the issues, and the issues are plenty.”
Wait a minute: libertarians are constantly decrying the corruption of government in the abstract. They point to the scourge of cronyism, the reality of regulatory capture, and how the Little Guy is always at a disadvantage due to the power of what Ayn Rand called “the aristocracy of pull”—political pull employed by a state-privileged elite to the detriment of the rest of us. But when asked to comment on the specific case of a powerful woman who shamelessly collected multi-millions from corporations and foreign governments while she was in a position to advance their interests at the expense of the nation, we get this phony high-mindedness. What, I thought watching all this unfold, is going on here?
What was going on was hinted at when it got around to the question of money for the Johnson/Weld campaign, with the latter boasting about his connections to top members of the Republican establishment. Indeed, the prologue had shown Mitt Romney’s warm endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor along with his deprecating comment directed at Johnson that he wished the ticket were switched, with Weld at the top. Johnson, who plays the beta-male role to a tee, deferred to Weld at every opportunity, and turned to him when the money question came up.
The New England patrician smiled thinly as he touted his connections to the Money Power, reminding viewers of his role as Mitt Romney’s finance chair in charge of pumping the elites of the eastern seaboard and averring that “half of the big Republican donors have said they’re not going to support Mr. Trump. That’s a lot to work with.” His appeal is to, “I won’t say the Never Trump crowd,” but to “just the people who have decided not yet to support Mr. Trump who are Republicans.” “And the first conversation,” he added, “is always easy.”
After this “Libertarian Town Hall,” it will no doubt get even easier, because where Weld expects the money to come from was made readily apparent in the next question, a somewhat weird word-association game:
CUOMO: I’ll say the name, you hit me with the first thing that comes to mind. Remember, we’ve got an audience here and a lot of people watching out there, as well. President Barack Obama?
JOHNSON: Good guy.
CUOMO: One. Governor Weld?
WELD: Barack Obama? I think he’s been statesman-like the last couple of years. He had a disappointing first term, and I think he’s picked up his game the last couple of years. It’s gone better for him.
CUOMO: Hillary Clinton?
JOHNSON: Hillary Clinton, a wonderful public servant, I guess I would say that.
WELD: Old friend. Nice kid. Knew her in her 20s. We shared an office in the Nixon impeachment, real bond, lifelong. Seriously. Not kidding.
I wondered, in that moment, as I’m sure many libertarians did: am I hallucinating? Is this an LSD flashback? What, I asked myself, is going on here? The answer was not long in coming:
CUOMO: Donald Trump?
JOHNSON: I’m sure there’s something good to say about Donald somewhere, I’m sure …
CUOMO [turning to Weld]: Donald Trump, one word?
The CNN-vetted audience burst into the first—and last—enthusiastic applause of the evening.
CUOMO: I think it’s very interesting, though, until that last word, you both tried to be positive about the names that were offered …
WELD: No, if you give me more words, I had a lot more …
Of course Weld had a lot more words, most of them no doubt directed at Trump, whom he has likened to Hitler. This would come up later in the program, at Cuomo’s prompting, but the premise of the entire evening had been laid out for all to see. Hillary Clinton is “wonderful” and an “old friend.” Obama is a “good guy” and a noble “statesman,” while Trump is a “huckster” with Hitlerian overtones.
After that performance, the rest of the show—what amounted to a complete evisceration of anything remotely resembling libertarianism—was a bit of an anti-climax. One by one, the handpicked members of the audience, especially tailored to challenge the libertarian premises of the candidates, arose to ask their prepared questions. A woman who claimed to have been at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub the night of the massacre asked why they want to make it easier to get a hold of guns. Johnson backed down, claiming “we don’t want to roll back anything,” and when pushed by Cuomo said he’d be “open to a discussion” about depriving certain people of their Second Amendments rights.
An alleged member of the Manhattan Libertarian Party got up and asked about someone with no health insurance: “Is it really a Libertarian principle that society should say he’s made a choice, bears the consequences, and should be allowed to die?”
That question, and the way it was framed, shows us how a party supposedly devoted to individual liberty came to nominate two moderate Republicans as their national standard-bearers. And Johnson’s answer—“Look, there should be a safety net out there regarding health care, and in no way are we saying that the safety net should be eliminated”—perfectly illustrated how little he understands or cares about the philosophy of government he’s supposedly selling.
When it came to abortion, Johnson gave one of his typically opaque answers, but Weld was forthright in asserting that government has a positive role to play in “promoting” abortion and “ensuring access” to abortion. “That’s good government,” he said, beaming. And Johnson, who says he’d continue funding Planned Parenthood with taxpayer dollars, sat there nodding approvingly, clearly relieved to have the heat taken off of him. For Weld, states’ rights are nonexistent: the feds must come in and enforce not only abortion rights—as defined by the feds—but also “gay rights,” and anything to the contrary is a “canard.”
Decentralism? Forget about it, buster. Washington knows best. Just ask Bill Weld.
On immigration, Johnson made the curious statement that the notion of building “a fence” along the border “borders on insanity.” Which raises the question: has the former governor of New Mexico ever been to the border? Because there’s already a lot of fencing—it’s just that Mexicans have no trouble jumping over it. Vatican City aside, is there a single country on earth that doesn’t have some kind of fence at its borders?
Weld evaded the immigration question and took the opportunity to lash out at Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, disdaining Trump’s proposal to build a wall and averring:
And that’s not the limit of the really unreasonable foreign-policy proposals by the presumptive Republican nominee. The notion of having Japan and South Korea have access to nuclear weapons is crazy in a world where nuclear proliferation is the number-one threat to the security of the world.
The notion that he is going to impose huge penalties on Mexico and China at will violates our obligations under treaties and international agreements like the World Trade Organization. You cannot be president of the United States and talk like that. You cannot even be a candidate for president of the United States and talk like that.
Spoken like a true internationalist! The “notion” that the United States is a sovereign nation, and not a Gulliver tied down by a lot of international Lilliputians, is enough to disqualify one from serious consideration. To heck with the U.S. Congress, and the wishes of the American people—the mighty World Trade Organization shall have the last word. And as for Japan and Korea—who are they to imagine they can defy the wishes of the imperial hegemons in Washington, who have, after all, given them unlimited access to U.S. markets in exchange for turning themselves into U.S. colonies? A bargain’s a bargain!
What has any of this got to do with libertarianism? The answer is: nothing.
Oh, I could go on: I could mention Johnson’s attachment to the “Fair Tax” proposal, and Weld’s revealing comment that, under a Johnson/Weld administration, our taxes may not go down but they won’t go up, either. But why bother? Neither Johnson nor Weld cares a single whit about promoting libertarianism as an alternative to the corporate cronyism of the Hillary-crats and the populist nationalism of the Trumpians. That’s not the purpose of the campaign.
So what are they after?
The Johnson/Weld campaign is a stalking horse for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, and this isn’t just unintended consequence of a third party’s attraction in a year when the voters are being presented with two widely disliked candidates from the majors. They’re doing it consciously, even going so far as to all but openly proclaiming it on national television.
It couldn’t be clearer.
Why, after all, did CNN—otherwise known as the Clinton News Network—give them over an hour of prime-time television? Both Johnson and Weld knew perfectly well why, and they acted accordingly—Johnson relatively hesitantly, but Weld made up for this by following the script with enthusiasm, that oily smile creeping over his weathered face as be played his expected role to perfection.
Writing in Reason, which has been overjoyed at the prospect of getting to cheerlead the Johnson-Weld ticket, Matt Welch’s air of disappointment wasn’t hard to discern. Even for “those of us who live in libertarian squishville,” as Welch put it, it was all really “awkward,” which I guess is one way of putting it.
But hey: “It’s probable that we are well and truly not the target audience,” says the former editor-in-chief of the world’s premier libertarian magazine:
Johnson and Weld are fighting for the broad sweet spot of ‘fiscally conservative and socially inclusive,’ which is a bloc much bigger than mere Libertarians (or libertarians), and one that just does not have a logical home anymore in either of the two major parties. In a season dominated by widely disliked, government-aggrandizing sociopaths, maybe just showing up and seeming nice and qualified enough will go farther than drawing airtight distinctions between different flavors of libertarianism.
Welch is right about one thing: libertarians are far and away not the target audience. It’s those Republican moneymen—and maybe not a few well-heeled Democrats—the campaign has in mind. It will be quite interesting to see the Johnson-Weld’s future FEC spending reports, although if they’re smart—and they are—they’ll funnel dark money through a PAC so the donors can retain anonymity.
And if the self-described inhabitants of “libertarian squishville” think they can pass off the Weld-Johnson Johnson-Weld package of old Ripon Society position papers as just another “flavor” of libertarianism, they are partaking of too many of Gary’s favorite cannabis edibles.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.