December 28 marked an important day in Libertarian Party history — the day that the party gained a presidential candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, capable of smashing its previous high in any presidential election, and perhaps even making the LP marginally relevant for once (or, at least, gaining the party's second-ever electoral vote). Johnson as standard bearer would be something of a perfect storm for the LP — which, though unavoidably also a tempest in a teapot, would nonetheless make a bigger splash than the Party has ever been capable of before.
Flash back to the last election cycle. No, go back two, to 2004, when the LP, still reeling from Harry Browne’s machinations, nominated a complete unknown as its presidential candidate. The list of “missed opportunities by the Libertarian Party” is a long and tragicomic one, but surely the choice of Michael Badnarik must be at or near the top: in an election evenly split between the military-statist Bush and the eco-statist Gore, the LP could’ve had a healthy cut of the excluded middle — but Badnarik’s was not the name to draw those voters.
In 2008, with that swing-and-a-miss behind them, the LP whiffed with the opposite approach, nominating a big name who was a, shall we say, imperfect fit with party ideals. I’m not one to deny the place of pragmatism in politics, but the man who authored the Defense of Marriage Amendment and fervently prosecuted the Drug War was a strange choice for the supposed party of freedom. No matter how hard he pushed his Road to Damascus narrative, a large chunk of the LP base (namely, donors and state and local party poobahs) was never going to buy into his campaign.
As a result, Bob Barr’s failure was utterly predictable — the rift in the party in 2008 was clear for all to see — but more to the point, just as utterly inevitable. In Barack Obama, the Democrats found a candidate who could reach out to the same undecideds the LP tries to make its own — those looking to cast a vote in dissent, anything so long as it has nothing to do with the party in power. Empty as we now know (or always knew) his promises of “Hope” and “Change” to be, they were nonetheless effective in closing off any change the Libertarians had of playing a role in the last cycle.
All of which is to say, the LP screwed up by getting its candidates backward — if anything, the off-the-ranch Republican with name recognition would have fared much better in 2004, serving as an alternative to two unpalatable statists. Meanwhile, 2008 would have been the time to run an outsider, someone who could elucidate a libertarian point of view, in the rare moments he (or she — vide Mary Ruwart) was called upon to do so.
But in 2012, the LP has the opportunity to pitch a candidate to an electorate seemingly sick of the whole process. Obama’s broken promises, aforementioned, have alienated a small but substantial portion of his base — those who cannot overlook our nation’s ongoing, unnecessary, and inhumane foreign wars; the continued attacks on the constitutional rights of the citizenry; the all-enveloping secrecy in which the government carries on its affairs; the gulag archipelago we are building up in our modern prison system . . . in short, all those left-leaning pundits and bloggers not in step with the all-conquering Obama line foisted upon us hourly by the power-loving, bootlicking establishment media outlets.
Who will these people turn to? Certainly not the Republican Party, at least not once Ron Paul again is defeated by, or cedes way to, a far inferior challenger. Despite moments in the sun for the laughable Herman Cain and the odious Newt Gingrich (not to mention Rick Perry’s campaign, brought to you by Tom of Finland), this nomination has from the first been Mitt Romney’s to lose. Only trouble is, Romney and Obama are, as The Root recognized long ago, nearly the same person. And more recently, one of Romney’s chief advisors was heard loudly rattling the saber for war with Iran — something that seems increasingly inevitable whichever party ends up with its finger on the button.
Hence, there is a chance that an experienced, eloquent Libertarian Party candidate — one capable of making, forcefully, the case against war, whether against other nations that pose no threat to us, or against those of our own citizens whose only crime is to ingest federally frowned-upon substances — could steal a sizable chunk of the vote, and not just from the college crowd (who, as we all know, don’t vote — I should know: I am one still). And that’s where Gary Johnson comes in. He’s an experienced pol who has the benefit of gaining his experience in a somewhat out-of-the-way state, allowing him both to get away with more than he might elsewhere (witness the in-progress crucifixion of Chris Christie in New Jersey), and to get raves from both Right and Left at different times for his handling of budgets and various other crises.
Additionally, Johnson has a legitimate beef with the presidential process, which effectively killed his campaign before it had hardly started by the simple expedient of refusing to let him speak alongside other candidates. By switching over to the LP, Johnson can present himself as a true outsider, one unbeholden to the major-party machines and their media purse-chihuahuas. His strongest issue, the legalization of marijuana (and decriminalization of other presently illegal drugs), will find supporters all along the political spectrum, especially those who for some reason expected Obama to live up to promises to back off medical dispensaries, rather than double down on the persecution. And he is glib enough (and has the voting record, besides) to avoid the typical traps laid down for third-party candidates: disaster management, education and child safety, national security. Likewise, he lacks the baggage some others do — most particularly, he has no history of orgazinational racism or anti-gay bias in his past. And — though this ought to be by far the least important thing about him — at 58 and in good shape, he remains telegenic and does not come off as a coot or a crank.
To close, I note that this is not an endorsement, either for Liberty or for myself, personally. It is, instead, a recommendation. If the Libertarian Party wishes to be relevant in this cycle, then it should gather round Johnson early on, kick the fundraising into gear, and come May’s national convention, launch his candidacy with as much money and PR as can be mustered. If, instead, the LP’s members wish to continue as they always have, then they should quibble and cavil and play up faults in Johnson’s record, and ensure that he is hobbled heading into the general election.
The choice is there, and with it a rare opportunity. But with things finally breaking the LP’s way, what remains to be seen is whether the party is capable of taking advantage.