Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!
Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.
Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.
So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.
After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?
Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.
What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?
Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.
The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”
What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.
As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.
Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.
Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.
He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.
In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”
On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.
Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.
The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.