Presidential Prelude

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If you got a bunch of people together and asked them, in an average week, what day and time would be the best for picking a presidential nominee, chances are they wouldn’t say “Sunday morning.” Yet here we were, 9:30 ante meridiem, waiting in a hotel ballroom in Orlando resortland, waiting for the assembly to come to order and select a champion.

The candidates milled about shaking hands, checking in with allies, killing time without actually doing much — least of all Gary Johnson, refusing to get beyond generalities other than a specific, strong denunciation of the debate questions the night before. To be fair, the media questions weren’t much more inspiring; many of the outside reporters started coming to me and a couple of others who had been through the event previously to fill in details about what, exactly, was going on.

While the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure.

The Libertarian convention is a wholly different manner of thing from the Republican and Democratic versions. Because the nominee has almost always been established weeks beforehand, the entire convention gets bent to their caprice; backstage drama is not about who will or won’t head the ticket, but rather who will or won’t be allowed a speaking slot to address the convention — a must for anyone with present or especially future designs on party power. Thus while the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure. In large part, political beat reporters long for a contested convention for the sheer sake of having something to report on other than mid-level position jockeying and embarrassing ego stroking.

The beauty, and the danger, of the Libertarian model is that every convention is contested. Whatever your advantages going in, nothing can be taken for granted (as Bob Barr learned in 2008) and almost anything can happen (as the entire Party learned with Michael Badnarik in 2004). From an outsider’s view, there was no way that Johnson, with his higher profile, past political experience, and infinitely greater access to media outlets, could do anything but cruise to victory. I wasn’t so sure: while none of the competitors seemed likely to steal away the nomination, they might be strong enough together to make things difficult — if their coalition held. With Johnson straw-polling at about 35–40%, and the next three pulling between 13–15% each, we looked set for at least two or three rounds.

There was a motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master.”

With the ballots distributed, we hurried up and waited. The interim between voting and counting was filled, as usual, by a variety of speakers, most of them candidates for Congress or even state office. These are not the operators of the major-party scene; these are people who have entire lives outside of politics: hobbyists and dilettantes, certainly, but ones who care enough to devote their own time and money to a losing cause — whether that be standing up to an incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed, or calling out the tyrannies of opponents on either side. They’re also an incredibly mixed bag: among the convention speakers were Lily Tang Williams, a Senate candidate from Colorado who “grew up eating trapped rat meat in Mao’s China”; Kimberly Schjang, a black lesbian running for the Nevada state senate; Rick Perkins, a Texas candidate about as white as one man can be, who then called up to the stage a black teenager from Georgia who planned to start a “freedom club” at her high school upon returning home. “This is the future!” he said, lifting her hand with his — a great message for whatever TV audience was looking on, though unfortunately far from the defining image it should have been. (And it wasn’t all highlights: choice among the opposite number was Ernest Hancock of the Arizona delegation lambasting the “lame-stream media” for not “getting it,” in front of the largest mainstream media contingent the Party has ever drawn to anything.)

The remainder of the time was taken up with an incessant stream of questions from the delegates, in the parliamentary forms of points of order, information, inquiry and personal privilege. Though often just a guise to promote the Party’s website, phone number, and social media info, these moments can also serve as funny or surreal irruptions amid the more orderly business. Two stood out: one motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master” (and by the end of the series, one might note, no life either); and another lamenting the lack of an official song for the convention, which the speaker remedied for himself, at least, by playing a jaunty tune on his harmonica.

At last the tally was complete, and the chairs of each state delegation commenced the finest part of any convention: stepping up to announce vote totals and brag about their state. In the LP, this usually means highlighting defeats of overbearing legislation, or historical points of relevance; for instance: “The great state of Illinois, where we send our governors to prison, casts its votes as follows . . .” Others took a different tack: “Those of us from the state of New Jersey would like to say, We’re sorry . . .” New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help Granite Staters “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

Witty or otherwise, all the states took a turn; as each was announced, it became clear that Johnson could take the ballot, but it would be very, very tight. Johnson was polling better than 40%, but Petersen and McAfee scored in most states as well, and there was a small but surprising tally for Feldman off the back of his energetic debate performance. All of these appear to have drained a bit of support from Perry, who kept only the hardest core of the Radical Caucus, but still cleared the 5% necessary to carry on. Kevin McClintock came in last with nine votes, less than 1% of the total — which normally would have made him a non-factor, except that in the final count, Johnson lacked only five votes to win outright.

New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help NHers “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

By the time McClintock finished his two-minute concession, the campaign crews were hard at work. The McAfee and Petersen crews each expected to get the other’s support when they dropped out, and Perry’s as well (though Perry would personally have gone None Of The Above before Petersen) — but the three of them together would also have to pull votes from Johnson’s haul. Part of Petersen’s strategy was to stage a confrontation with Johnson outside the ballroom, breaking through the media scrum to accuse him of refusing to “unify the party” with a more conciliatory VP pick. But Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers. Really the governor was just serving as decoy; as Brian Doherty details, instead of waiting for the McClintock faction to drift in, the Johnson campaign was busy whipping Feldman voters, reminding them that it was the governor’s support that got him in the debate, and making the case that one tribute vote was enough.

The strategy bore immediate dividends: Johnson took the second ballot with almost 56% of votes cast; out of the 60 he picked up, 40 came from Feldman. McAfee held onto his count, and Petersen picked up a handful, but not close to enough; Gary Johnson would be the party’s presidential nominee for the second election running.

Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers

And yet, strange as it may seem, all the foregoing served merely as prelude for the real fight of the day, over whether or not former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld serve as the Party’s vice-presidential nominee. As soon as the victory was announced, everyone switched gears: Johnson, with Weld at his side, went to meet the press as nominee; Petersen quickly declared his endorsement of Johnson at the top of the ticket, but threw his own support behind Alicia Dearn’s campaign. McAfee left the floor entirely; given past statements that he would be LP for life except if Johnson was the nominee, some wondered if he was gone for good. Perry attempted to round up any outstanding VP tokens to see if he could get into the race — not actually to run, but to withdraw and urge support for either Larry Sharpe or Will Coley.

Over the lunch break, the “Anyone But Gary” coalition morphed into a “Never Weld” one. And, unlike with Johnson — who for all his drawbacks remained reasonably well respected, even liked, among the rank and file — this time, they would be going after a much more vulnerable target.



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Staging and Blocking

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Back in (comparative) reality — even in the main ballroom, the night’s event was ticket-only, reserved for top-tier donors, or those who had $20 to spend on being there. Despite that, people lined up early and eventually filled the room past seated capacity, with Johnson and Petersen supporters chanting out the names of their candidate — a mindset which I know I will never, ever be able to fathom: why invest so much in a person who, through the process of politics, will inevitably disappoint you in principle, performance, or both?

Moderating would be radio personality and self-styled “Sage of Southern California” Larry Elder, the same question in different wordings. Thankfully the debate format — 30 seconds to respond to any question, 30 seconds rebuttal to any rival mentioned by name — kept things mostly on track. But the questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why, between barrel-fish such as “What should we do about the Fed?” for the candidates to dutifully shotgun, and spring-load traps such as “Should driver’s licenses be required to operate a car?” for the candidates to either produce extreme responses, or get booed for their lack of extremity. And that’s not even to mention simply bizarre questions such as, “Do you think American intervention in World War I and World War II was justified?”, as if anyone could answer such a question in 30 seconds.

In the main ballroom there was introductory music from a man playing gently looping ambient guitar, with occasional lyrics urging hearers to "arm yourselves to the teeth."

Johnson had, in many ways, the hardest task, forced to play not only to the more radical crowd on the floor, but also the TV audience and the bumper crop of media. So he concentrated mostly on process: noting not the utopian ideals he would instill as president, but which bills he would or would not be prepared to sign should Congress put them on his desk. His economic plans were a buffet of conservative thinktank ideas: flat tax, vouchers for schools, states as labs for entitlement plans, higher retirement age and means testing for Social Security (huge boos here), privatized infrastructure, etc. Asked about Trump, he said he “didn’t want to talk about him,” before rattling off a long list of ways the Republican candidate is wrong, a rapid-fire preview of what a 2016 Johnson campaign could be.

He often returned to his experience as governor, but it got him in trouble once: when asked how or who he would appoint to the Supreme Court, Johnson brought up a bizarre hypothetical he used to vet candidates in New Mexico: if a law passed making graffiti punishable by the death penalty, would the candidate uphold an indisputable conviction under that law? It’s a strange thought experiment at best, but one that was never going to land in a roomful of people who earlier that day had committed the party to a platform plank against the death penalty, whatever the offense. More generally, Johnson has a strange catch to his voice when he talks off the cuff, so not only is it very clear which responses are practiced, it also makes the spontaneous ones less confident, or in the sharper words of a fellow reporter, “more pulled from his ass.” If he somehow manages to get a debate with the major-party candidates, Trump will pick him to pieces for that if it’s not dealt with. However, he showed that he’s not afraid to stick to his guns on answers he knows will draw disapproval, in particular in reaffirming that he would sign off on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in both public and private establishments.

The questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why.

Johnson was on his strongest ground in asserting that he is the only candidate with even a narrow chance of getting to a national stage; several of his opponents were rhetorically smoother, if perhaps not more practiced, but their lack of name recognition or record of political accomplishments would make sure they never saw any media time, period. The only exception among the debaters was John McAfee, who can command media attention, but at the cost of no one having any idea exactly what he’s going to say at any given moment. He left open more room for government involvement (by Libertarian Party standards) than anyone besides Johnson; e.g., in transitioning Social Security and entitlement programs rather than just ending them outright, allowing a minimum role in repairing and maintaining interstate highways, and possibly in discouraging lawsuits, both because of the costs added to health insurance by malpractice suits, and similar; and because of personal experience — “I’ve been sued more than 200 times; lawyers are the hand of Satan.”

On other issues, though, he went out the farthest on the limb, such as being the only candidate to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a manmade phenomenon, even as he noted (as did Johnson) that government, and especially the military, is the biggest polluter, and it will take free markets to provide the necessary solutions. Despite this, he didn’t get booed as Johnson did — possibly because he wasn’t a Republican governor in the past, but possibly also because his magnetism in one-on-one conversations doesn’t really carry through to a debate format. McAfee was perhaps constitutionally unable to play a crowd; one can see why he’s out of step with the Silicon Valley hordes in the era of huckster-pattered TED Talks.

On the opposite spectrum was Darryl W. Perry, a New Hampshire-based anarchist with no problems filling the room with his voice. Perry’s extensive catalog of applause lines, honed on his radio show Free Talk Live, demonstrated both his greatest strength and weakness: the former his ability to riff on almost any question that could be put to him; the latter the sheer predictability of his answers — not even in content so much as in rhythm: start with a seeming tangent or even non sequitur, then bring it back to the subject by the end. Thus, asked about Social Security, Perry starts by asking the crowd “Do you love grandmas?” and how people will support grandmas through voluntary contributions if the program is eliminated. Asked about transgender rights and the North Carolina bathroom law, Perry introduces the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

I had heard these same anecdotes from Perry in an interview the day before, almost down to the exact pitch and modulation (and, a bit unfortunately, nearly the exact volume as well, in a smaller space). Perry’s voice is a strength — “radio quality” as several media onlookers noted — though as he gets excited, he can lose command of it, with a tendency also toward destructive gestures such as podium-pounding. He has a sense of theater; he was the only candidate to liven up his obligatory “end the Fed” answer by ripping apart a dollar, noting that act was “probably a felony”; he also may have been the only candidate to quote literature or classical liberal philosophy, dropping in references to both Mark Twain and Frédéric Bastiat. None of which was likely to earn him a single vote outside the radical faction: many in the LP would applaud lines about conducting all government business via charitable contribution, making all drugs “as legal as tomatoes,” and eliminating the entire presidential cabinet in alphabetical order, but they weren’t going to make their speaker the face of the party.

Perry introduced the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

Petersen put great faith in his face, and in polished image and presentation generally; it was only when the debate (or events off the convention floor) went off-plan that the cracks began to show. In the debate, he had the great advantage of being at Johnson’s right, meaning that for four out of every five questions, he responded immediately after the ex-governor. Whenever Johnson suggested an incrementalist approach to reducing the size of a government program or agency, Petersen was right there to suggest ending it immediately. If Johnson said the free market had bankrupted coal, Petersen retorted that it was government regulation and crony capitalism instead. If Johnson suggested user fees for the road system, Petersen broke out his best Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Amid all this needling, Petersen’s best moment was a reminder of the racist origins of the minimum wage, passed by union-backed white legislatures as a means of keeping black labor from entering the market. But Petersen lost some support elsewhere: in particular by responding to the question of when life begins (which Perry rightly called out as a trap meant to divide the audience), by asserting it’s at conception — though he wouldn’t be drawn on when, if ever, terminating a pregnancy would become a criminal act. Asked about the appropriate size of the military, he trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis: “Be professional, be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” Petersen even got booed from some corners for suggesting that it would be reasonable to have laws preventing children from buying heroin or other hard drugs.

If Petersen profited by having Johnson at his left, he got himself into the red by having Marc Allan Feldman to his right. Feldman wasn’t exactly the breakout star of the event — as he reminded everyone, he was nobody before he began his campaign, and he encouraged them to vote for nobody in the ballots to come. He began by noting that he was passing up part of his son’s wedding weekend to be in Orlando; to judge from his performance, it was the correct decision. Here was a man having the absolute time of his life: with no need to attack anyone or defend any particular position, Feldman spoke with honesty and humor, handling even the thornier questions with grace as well as lines that meandered less than some others’. He sidestepped the religious question by noting that, for religious reasons, he didn’t believe in mixing milk and meat — yet he wouldn’t argue that cheeseburgers should be illegal. On the question of withdrawing from or ending NATO, the IMF, or the UN, he quipped that maybe the UN was fine, since it didn’t ever seem to do anything.

Asked about the appropriate size of the military, Petersen trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis.

I don’t mean to suggest that these lines were the height of wit, but rather to credit Feldman for selling them with his warmth and obvious sincerity. On every question where the candidates were largely in agreement — cutting government spending, opening up trade, easing or eliminating immigration controls (there was scarcely a word to be heard here for tight borders, all those voters evidently having gone to Trump) — Feldman offered at least a little joviality through his responses. For his final statement, the candidate who had run a video of himself rapping during his nomination speech went back to the well, running through a sort of slam poem with an intensity that brought the house down; he very nearly got carried out on the crowd’s shoulders.

After the debate, the candidates pressed the flesh while operatives scurried about trying to get rough counts for the next morning’s election. While Feldman was soaking up the well-wishes of debate attendees, he was also already getting pressured by both Johnson and Petersen campaigns to drop out after the first ballot and endorse the respective candidacies. McAfee and Perry had earlier worked out an agreement of reciprocal support, but now Petersen (whose campaign suite shared an interior door with McAfee’s) sought the same — though it would be uphill going, to judge by the several radicals I spoke with on the night who would vote McAfee, but preferred that old Libertarian standby, None Of The Above, to either Johnson or Petersen. Nonetheless, via various channels, the three campaigns began work in earnest on an “Anyone But Gary” coalition. As the candidate machine hustled, convention attendees moved in knots and bunches out to the pool, into the bars, and up to the various room parties. With the nominations and debate done, the true business of the convention could begin.



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Opening Day

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Seen from the air, Orlando looks like a candidate for utopia: lush and expansive, with lakefront views for all. But down at street level, it’s mostly sprawling, congested, and full of the same suburbanite ideas repeated over and over again. And sure, there’s a metaphor there for Libertarian politics, but I’ll try not to run it too far into the ground.

I’m in Orlando to report on the 2016 Libertarian Party National Convention. Why Orlando? It’s a fair question. Four years ago, it was in America’s playground, Las Vegas. Four years before that, Denver, not so much a playground but still a beautiful place with things to do and see. Orlando has little on offer, just those lakes and the boggy expanses between them, some of which are occupied by mega-parks and highly-strung families.

Most people’s first experience of the city will be Orlando International Airport, with all those families are coming and going at all hours of the day. It is not for the faint of heart; however straightforward the flight may be, when you arrive you’ll step off the terminal shuttle into a space that J.G. Ballard might have envisioned on a particularly grumpy day, a combination TSA staging area and hotel atrium, with guests free to surveil all the goings-on from their concrete escarpments. Just like Dealey Plaza in Dallas, everything in MCO looms; add in the chaos of several hundred planeloads of children (not to mention the guarantees of choice product placement), and it likewise would make a great site for an historic assassination.

When you arrive, you’ll step off the terminal shuttle into a space that J.G. Ballard might have envisioned on a particularly grumpy day.

Furthermore, thanks to the sprawl, getting to the convention site is harder than you might think. It’s about 13 miles, give or take, from MCO to the convention-center corridor known as International Drive. Without traffic—which will never happen—that’s at least a $45 cab fare. In many cities, Uber and its clones help even out such costs; Orlando cab drivers, however, with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city transit board, have managed to keep UberX and other official, above-board providers away from the MCO pickup line. (Uber’s upscale service, Uber BLACK, cut a compromise: in exchange for agreeing to all the extra taxes, licenses, background checks, lane fees, etc., they can now serve the airport. Unsurprisingly, their prices are little better than the taxi cartels’.)

Readers of Liberty, or anyone with any economic sense whatsoever, will not be surprised to learn that there a vigorous black-market has developed over Craigslist and similar sites, where drivers sell services directly to riders, without the transparency or oversight that Uber, Lyft, et al. provide. One enterprising Libertarian ran a “civil disobedience” shuttle, ferrying over any convention attendee willing to donate $40 to the Party—a good deal for a round trip. For my own part, I chose the last available option: the public bus. I can only imagine how ludicrously oversubsidized and inefficient it must be, because for $2, I was taken from the airport right past the convention center, and it only took an extra half an hour. I’d recommend it to anyone willing to capitalize on the city’s civic largesse.

The Rosen Centre itself, host of this year’s convention, is surprisingly not terrible, though it’s also not Orlando’s main convention center—that would be across the street, and host this week to MegaCon, a pop-culture and comics convention. So while libertarians are a pretty diverse group in terms of personal style and accoutrements, they were put to shame by the costuming and pageantry on display from the MegaCon attendees—will be interesting to see if anyone from the LP raises their game to compensate. (Looking your way, Starchild.)

Today was mostly for meeting old friends, renewing acquaintances, and squabbles over credentials and delegate seating. The latter had wrapped up by the time I was able to join the fun, so I headed instead for an event hosted by our friends at FreedomFest, nearby the convention. As future presidents go, the crowd was pretty strongly against Gary Johnson, and for Austin Petersen—which made sense, as he was the only candidate who bothered to make the short walk over. Petersen is an engaging enough figure, and I’ll hope to bring you more about him the next couple days, but the short stump speech he gave here was little different than any of the others he has up on social media.

Better soundbites awaited me at the convention’s opening reception, where they had arranged for speakers to alternately harangue or sing at the crowd. One of the speakers, Jim Rogers, went on at some length about the government’s “war on cash,” stipulating in particular that they would start soon by seizing everyone’s 401(k)s, and only later move to nationalize all bank accounts; an extrapolation, it seemed from recent Greek experiences. Shakier, perhaps, was his assertion that “California is more Communist than China”; I was tempted to ask just which particular sort of communism he had in mind, but the LPNC didn’t seem the ideal place for discussions of the finer points of neo-Marxist and Maoist theory.

One enterprising Libertarian ran a “civil disobedience” airport shuttle, ferrying over any convention attendee willing to donate $40 to the Party.

At some point, improbable presidential candidate John McAfee appeared at a table by poolside, his manifestation completed by a TV crew from Spike filming footage for some sort of upcoming show. While the candidate talked with hoi polloi, I heard interesting if necessarily vague anecdotes from McAfee’s bodyguard about his (the bodyguard’s) past in bodyguarding, starting with work for private Italian family concerns in Chicago, as well as his (again the bodyguard’s) theories about what actually happened that day in Belize where McAfee’s neighbor got shot in the head.

Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen, and would not be until a later unofficial debate with McAfee, anarchist candidate Daryl W. Perry, and campaign-reform candidate Marc Allan Feldman—see the videos here posted by Petersen, who filmed but did not participate. Johnson’s aloofness added to the vibe I picked up earlier, a perception that he’s already taking the nomination as fait accompli, or as a formality to be dealt with before moving on to the general. And in fairness, that’s probably true—but that sort of aerial view can miss a lot of what’s happening far below. Over the next two days, we’ll see what surprises, if any, this convention has in store.
 



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Dead Cat Bounce

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The Democratic National Convention produced not much of a bounce in the polls for Obama, and the bounce was soon gone. A big part of the reason was the continuing economic bad news that rained on the propaganda parade. This news is worth analyzing, because most people don’t see its significance. Certainly the mainstream media don’t.

First, early in the week of the convention, the feds announced that we officially hit the $16 trillion mark in national debt. This happened during the administration of a man who questioned his predecessor’s patriotism for having spent much less in eight years than his own administration has spent in less than four. The media ignored this, of course.

But much worse were the job figures. The jobs report showed a measly 96,000 net jobs created in August. And the numbers for the previous two months were revised downwards — 41,000 fewer jobs were created in the previous two months than had been reported earlier.

The unemployment rate “dropped” from 8.3% to 8.1%, but only because an incredible 368,000 people simply left the labor force. Yes, four people quit searching for work for every one who found it.

In fact, if the labor participation rate were what it was on the day Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be a whopping 11.2%. Hell, if the labor participation rate had just stayed the same as it was last month, the unemployment rate would have gone up to 8.4%. Count in the underemployed along with those who have given up looking for work, and the rate is really 19%.

Meanwhile, in the last month for which data are available, the number of Americans on food stamps rose by 173,000. Yes, about two Americans applied for food stamps for every one who got a job. More than 45 million Americans — i.e., roughly 15% of the population — are now on food stamps, almost double the 7.9% rate that was the average from 1970 to 2000.

The number of people on SSI (Social Security disability) has now hit 11 million, half signing up under Obama’s enlightened reign.

The fruits of neosocialism are bitter, except for the neosocialists themselves.




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Talking to an Empty Chair

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I keep hearing some people say that Clint Eastwood’s hilarious skit at the National Republican Convention was in poor taste. I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip that "good taste is the last refuge of the witless."

Indeed, I found it comical watching media insiders, even conservative ones, agonizing over Clint Eastwood's "disrespect" to President Obama as he mimed him telling Mitt Romney to perform an anatomically impossible act.

This is disrespect? To the president who by proxy or surrogate has accused Mitt Romney of schoolyard bullying, murder, lying, felony, dog-whistle racism, and income tax evasion, and who ran a video that showed Paul Ryan pitching granny into a ravine? When did we get so finicky and reverential about the president, particularly this president, who was tutored in the political graces in the corrupt down-and-dirty precincts of Chicago?

The insider campaign wonks who are expert in the art of manipulation claimed that Clint interrupted the touching emotional sweep of the painstakingly choreographed narrative leading up to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech. Mika Brzezinsky, co-anchor of "Morning Joe," said that Clint's shtick was "absolutely disgusting." And even Ann Romney claimed she "didn't know it was coming."

Such sensitive souls!

Governor Scott Walker said that Eastwood's speech made him “cringe,” and Roger Ebert added that he found Eastwood’s performance “sad.” But as the cameras scanned the convention floor I didn’t see anyone cringing or sad. What I saw was the uproarious laughter of an audience previously about to die from an assault of cloying sentimentality. The majority rose to their feet in cheering approbation, and many were laughing so hard they seemed on the verge of crying, if not rolling in the aisles. I have a hunch that many of these embarrassed and shocked TV newsmen were secretly laughing up their collective sleeves as well, and will wake up in the middle of the night and burst out with geysers of uncontrollable laughter.

There was a subtext to Eastwood’s funny, roguish skit: it covered some pretty deplorable behavior of President Obama and his dysfunctional administration; it was, in fact, a serious bill of indictment. But what Clint Eastwood really brought to the proceeding was some much-needed irreverence in a too carefully scripted presentation. It's called comic relief.




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Stop the Convention

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No, I’ve had it; and I think the nation has had it too. This business of national political conventions has got to stop.

As my colleague Drew Ferguson recently demonstrated, the Libertarian Party convention is still of human interest. It is, after all, a place where ideas matter, and personalities too — the more colorful, the better. But as for the Republicans and the Democrats . . . sorry, we’ve reached the end.

As a reporter for this journal, I attended what I believe to have been the last real nominating convention of a major party, the Republican National Convention of 1996 (Liberty, November 1996, pp. 18–25). The event was almost entirely staged in advance, and the huckster room — the place where people sell pictures and trinkets and “literature” and elephants (or donkeys) — was by far the most interesting thing about it. But there was a moment when Pat Buchanan, the idol of the right-wingers, appeared unauthorized on the convention floor, and almost took the assembly away with him. From the point of view of political interest, that almost made the convention legitimate.

But nothing like that could have been expected of the Romney and Obama séances. In place of real drama, or real decision-making, what we witnessed — and very, very few Americans could be cajoled into witnessing it — was two dopey, incompetent infomercials, filled with obvious lies and the kind of product demonstrations that would make any seller of male restoration medications blush.

The trappings of old-fashioned, drama-filled conventions were retained — the platform report, the roll call, the nominating speeches — all useless, all precrafted by nameless political hacks, or discredited former office-holders (Bill Clinton, of all people, masquerading as the sage elder statesman). And all a gigantic bore.

I swear to God, after Obama’s speech at his convention, the folks on CNN actually said, “Let’s get some reaction from the delegates on the floor.” As if the nation needed to hear the “reactions” of the loser religious fanatics who populate these mobs, people regarded with sovereign contempt by the leaders of their own parties.

“Excuse me, Ms. Four Hundred Pounder, esteemed delegate from East Overshoe, Ohio, ‘employed’ as a ‘union representative’ in a public ‘school,’ and currently decorated from toe to top with goofy political buttons, can you tell us what you thought of the president’s speech?”

What’s the probability that Ms. Pounder will say, “I thought that guy was the biggest tool that ever afflicted our country”?

A synonym for “boring” is “predictable.” Now, what can be more predictable than 40 hours of astute political commentary by Democratic office-holders and other parasites about the virtues of the preordained Democratic nominee? (Substitute “Republican” in the appropriate places, and you’ll get the same effect.) Answer: speeches by the spouses of the nominees, extolling (what a surprise) their hubbies’ qualifications to be president.

In ages past, the very idea of such a speech would have been regarded as the kiss of death for any political candidate. A man is on trial for stealing from the collection plate (which is what all politicians do), and his best witness turns out to be . . . his wife? Good God! And the speeches of Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama, as bad as they were, were regarded by some professional political commentators as the best ones at the conventions.

There are so many awful moments to remember . . . I’ll single out just one: President Obama, apparently having nothing better to do, entering the convention hall to listen to himself being extolled by former President Clinton — who is, according to David Gergen, “the most effective speaker in America.“ Clinton, by the way, is universally known to be Obama’s bitter enemy, because of Clinton’s desire to have his (own) wife elected, so the whole affair was an exercise in what everyone knew to be in-yo-face hypocrisy. What a picture! — rivaled only by that of Mr. Obama, rushing out to hug Mr. Clinton at the end of the latter’s address.

What we witnessed was two dopey, incompetent infomercials, filled with obvious lies and the kind of product demonstrations that would make any seller of male restoration medications blush

But listen: this business of relatives is completely out of hand. First there was the Kennedy family (creeps). Then the Bush family (dolts). Now the Clinton family (real, dedicated weirdos). But to return . . . This notion of a person listening to his own nomination speech, then going onstage to hug the speaker, would have filled any previous candidate with horror. It just wasn’t done. By anybody. It wasn’t even thought of. Why? Because there was (often) a reality, and (sometimes) a decorous pretense, that real business was being conducted at a national convention, that real people were deciding whether to nominate this real person or that real person for a real and important office, and that before the nomination was made, it behooved that person to show respect, and stay away.

For whatever reason, Barack Obama couldn’t stand to do that. He had to take the stage in his own infomercial. Following which there was a roll-call “vote” of the “delegates.” What do you suppose would have happened if a group of those common people, so much extolled throughout the two parties’ conventions, had arisen to cast a vote for somebody besides the preordained candidate? There would have been a lynching, at the least. Yet these are supposed to be deliberative assemblies.

I say, away with them all. They are nothing but attempts at cheap publicity, and like all such attempts, they get cheaper and cheaper. From now on, hold your silly primaries, cast your votes in your corrupt state party committees, tabulate the results by computer, and nominate your person. Stop the masquerade. It isn’t funny anymore.




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Ron Paul and the Future

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Four years ago, when Rep. Ron Paul suspended his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he would not endorse the party’s nominee, was not invited to the party’s convention, and held a counter-convention of his own. By all appearances, he’s not going to do that this year.

At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo urged Paul to run as an independent, “because a third party candidacy will leave a legacy, a lasting monument to your campaign and the movement it created.” I can’t see a lasting monument in it, or the sense. I note that Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

In 2008, I wrote in Liberty that Paul ought to endorse the party’s nominee, John McCain. Paul wouldn’t have to campaign for McCain, I said, and he could remind people how he was different from McCain, but to preserve his influence in the party he’d have to endorse McCain as preferable to Obama. Well, he didn’t. Paul endorsed Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and radio talk show host whom few Americans had heard of, and who received 0.15% of the general election vote.

Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

This year Paul turns 77. He is not running to keep his seat in Congress. His career as an elected politician is at an end. But since January 2011 he has had a son, Rand Paul, in the Senate. There is talk of the junior senator from Kentucky being Romney’s vice-presidential choice and more talk of him running for president in four years, or eight. Either way, for Ron Paul, having a 49-year-old son in the Senate changes the calculus about party loyalty and his movement.

Again, I say: endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s. It means there is a Republican label on you and your supporters. And that is important, especially regarding them.

Is an endorsement a betrayal?

What was the point of the Paul campaign? To put Ron Paul in the White House? That was never possible. In public, Paul had to pretend that it was, because those are the American rules, and his supporters have been pretending it even harder. But it was a fairy tale. Ron Paul’s purpose has been to advance the cause of liberty, sound money, and a non-imperial foreign policy. He could do this even if he fought and lost, depending on how he did it. He was introducing new ideas (or old ones) into political discourse, creating a new faction that aimed to redirect the mainstream of one of the two great national parties.

That is not a defeatist notion. It may be a task with a lasting monument, though it is too early to say.

A political leader changes the thought of a party by persuading people to embrace new ideas. To do that, he needs the media’s attention, and in politics, equal attention is not given an outsider. It has to be earned by such things as polls, the size and behavior of crowds, money raised and, ultimately, by electoral results.

Endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s.

Paul achieved none of these things in 1988 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party. He was nobody, and he went home with 0.47% of the vote. But in 2008, in the Republican Party’s primary campaigns, he did unexpectedly well, measured by straw polls, crowd behavior, and campaign donations. Unfortunately, the media pegged his support as narrow-but-deep (they were right) and mostly ignored him. He took 5.56% of the Republican vote — one vote in 20.

This year they still slighted him, though less than before. And he received 10.86% — one vote in almost nine. His support was still narrow-but-deep, but wider in almost every state. He was not the top votegetter in any of them, but he came close in Maine and garnered more than 20% of Republican support in six caucus states: Maine, 36%, North Dakota, 28%, Minnesota, 27%, Washington, 25%, Alaska, 24%, and Iowa, 21% — and in three primary states: Vermont, 25%, Rhode Island, 24% and New Hampshire, 23% (not counting Virginia, 40%, where his only opponent was Romney).

Paul’s support is not typical for Republican politicians. He is from south Texas, but seems to do best in states on the Canadian border. Most of his best states are Democrat “blue” rather than Republican “red.” He was the oldest candidate in the race, but exit polls showed in state after state that he had the youngest supporters. In New Hampshire, a Fox News exit poll showed Paul winning 46% of Republican voters 18 to 29 years of age.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top. Some believe that Ron Paul is the only man who can save America, and that anyone who opposes him is evil. They don’t see themselves as joining a party; they aim to take it over. In the unfamiliar turf of parliamentary procedure, they are quick to cry foul and sometimes are right. At the moment, their strategy in the caucus states is to outstay the Romney supporters and snatch the national delegates away from them.

And that makes for nastiness.

This is from a Politico story by James Hohmann, May 14:

Those close to [Ron Paul] say he’s become worried about a series of chaotic state GOP conventions in recent weeks that threaten to undermine the long-term viability of the movement he’s spent decades building. In the past few days alone, several incidents cast the campaign in an unfavorable light: Mitt Romney’s son Josh was booed off the stage by Paul backers in Arizona on Saturday, and Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Mary Fallin received similarly rude treatment in Oklahoma.

Booing is the public stuff. I know a political operative who crossed the Paul forces and received death threats — so many, he said, that he turned off his phone for two weeks.

Enthusiasm can become something else. (For more examples, google “Ron Paul supporters are”.)

Given the strength — and sometimes the immaturity — of his supporters, what is Paul to do? Endorse Romney or not, he will soon be a non-candidate and a non-congressman.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top.

What then? One poll asked Paul supporters whom they would vote for in November. The answer: Obama, 35%; Romney, 31%; Gary Johnson, 16%. The Paul movement splinters.

How they vote in November might change if Paul made an endorsement; and anyway, how they think is the more important thing in the long run. If a large number of the young ones went into one political party and stayed there, they might change that party — and that could be the lasting monument.

All this is something for Ron Paul to think about as he ponders whether to endorse, what to do with his 100-plus delegates, and what to say if the party gives him a chance to address the national convention.




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Closing Time

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The chaos in the chair’s election set off a night full of wrangling among LP power factions, with all sides attempting to broker deals that would maximize their own influence on the party’s next two years. Such a deal would save face for both sides, though also make for a potentially fraught leadership structure — though it’s an open question whether it would be more fraught than usual.

The morning dawned on a ballroom full of confused and regret-filled, yet strangely energized libertarians, who made their voices heard even before the chair’s vote was taken back up by refusing to seat a handful of new delegates who had presumably been brought aboard to shift the one-vote race. In the meantime, the Missouri LP took a more direct route, cutting loose the five of its delegates who had voted for Mark Rutherford instead of None of the Above (NOTA) on Saturday.

With Mark Hinkle recusing himself for the chair’s race, Bill Redpath had taken up the (still metaphorical) gavel throughout the previous day’s shenanigans; he started from his ruling of the previous day that the third round of voting would be between Rutherford and NOTA, just like the second ballot which Rutherford won, but failed to gain a majority. A challenge to that ruling, requiring a two-thirds vote from the floor, failed; however, a motion to open up the floor to new nominations succeeded. Because Hinkle had already been eliminated, he was ineligible for renomination, and thus retook the podium from a visibly relieved Redpath.

Reopening the floor had much the same effect as a NOTA win, except Rutherford still remained eligible for votes; likely this was the only compromise that could have forestalled full parliamentary breakdown. Among the new candidates mooted were Wes Wagner, the firebrand at the center of the ugly Oregon LP struggle (and hence much of the rest of this fooferaw); Redpath (again); Geoff Neale (also again); and Ernest Hancock, who wasn’t even there or paid up on his dues. Also nominated, but declining: Jim Lark, who many had viewed as a more-than-acceptable compromise candidate, endorsed Redpath in much the same spirit; Lee Wrights, who endorsed Neale while actively campaigning for vice chair; and Chuck Moulton, who endorsed no one. (Also, a motion came from the floor to overturn the first round of voting and put Hinkle, but he stayed well out of that potential parliamentary nightmare, ruling it out of order.)

Many delegates were scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you.

What the nominating speeches lacked in length — a limit of three minutes for each candidate — they made up for in fireworks. After Wagner used his few minutes to excoriate the party leadership and call for a clean sweep, Redpath tried to cool things down and take up the “compromise” mantle, appealing to his past experience in the role. Neale was having none of it: he used his time to “come clean” about his resignation as treasurer years ago, breaking the silence he had held since that time (in public, anyway) about how a previous LP chair — Bill Redpath, coincidentally enough — asked him to sign off on an unbalanced budget that effectively hid $500,000 in resources. With people still reeling from this, someone stepped up to speak for Hancock; probably would’ve been dynamite if he’d been there to deliver it, but it fizzled in his absence.

The first round of voting was especially frantic, with many delegates scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you. When all the delegations reported, the frontrunners were obvious: Rutherford with 153, Neale 149, Redpath 128. Wagner was low man with 9, while Hancock took 21, not quite enough to get him to the 5% safety line.

With time limits increasingly pressing upon the assembly, a motion was made (by Nick Sarwark, appropriately enough) to combine the successive officer elections into a single ballot, and then handle all at-large positions plus the Judicial Committee on a second ballot. From this point on, imagine everything running in fast forward. Put on the Benny Hill chase music if it helps.

The second round tallies were Neale 167, Rutherford 155, and Redpath eliminated with 119. While delegates were casting their ballots for a fifth round of chair voting, the floor was also opened to nominations for vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. With so much going on, delegates could almost — almost! — be excused for duplicating nominations. In the end, these were the names put forward:

Vice chair: Lee Wrights (who some speculated had been shooting for this all along), George Phillies, and Bill Redpath. Also nominated: Mark Rutherford, who declined to endorse Redpath; and Mark Hinkle, who considered it from the podium with a mighty “Ummm . . .” before declining.

Treasurer: Joe Buchman, Aaron Starr (open boos from some delegates), Tim Hagan, and George Phillies (declined).

Secretary: Ruth Bennett, Alicia Mattson (the incumbent, at the moment very busy working spreadsheet magic — even if at one point the sample VP ballot included Captain Caveman and Grape Ape), and Jeff Weston.

A further motion from the floor limited each candidate to two minutes for their nominating speeches; Bill Redpath was compelled to use his to respond to Neale’s accusations, noting that the amount in question was actually $250,000, and that the budget he asked treasurer Neale to sign off on was, in fact, balanced. Given the charges, the rebuttal was probably necessary, but it added to the unseemliness of the whole procedure. Or, if you’re a press vulture like me, it made the possibility of a Neale/Redpath LP executive pairing irresistibly juicy.

While all this was carrying on, the fifth round voting came in with Neale at 212, Rutherford at 205, and NOTA — previously hanging around 12 — resurgent with 29. As neither human candidate pulled a majority, the low man Rutherford was eliminated and Neale was left to defeat NOTA in a sixth and, gods willing, final ballot. At this point it was decided the chair vote would be combined with that for the other officers, and that during balloting nominations and speeches would proceed for LNC at-large positions.

The easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP.

Here we entered full three-ring mode, with a show that would put Circus Circus to shame. (Although, really, anyone involved with Circus Circus in any capacity likely has more than enough shame to bear already.) Nominations flooded in. Presidential candidate Gary Johnson entered the fray to endorse both Bill Redpath and, to much wider consternation, Wayne Allen Root; Lee Wrights waded in to speak for Robert Murphy; Wes Wagner was nominated from some corner, and at least a dozen others were entered into the rolls, including stand-bys like Michael Cloud and Mark Hinkle, and wilder-cards like social-media svenghali Arvin Vohra, and the omnipresent, omnisexual Starchild, who on this day had foregone the bustiers and high heels for a rather fetching Lawrence of Arabia number. Everyone accepting an at-large nomination was granted a full minute to make their case to the remaining delegates, so that the easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP. (Also similar to speed dating: many of the potential matches had no relevant social skills whatsoever.)

At this point, with Judicial Committee nominations in full swing — and, given the extreme pressures of time and hangover pricing for Las Vegas convention space, a motion approved to grant them no time whatsoever to address their would-be constituents — the officer results rolled in. On the sixth ballot, the party finally elected a chair, with Geoff Neale taking it 264 to NOTA’s 159. Opening with the line, “So it seems my master plan of running for national chair with no expenses worked,” Neale’s acceptance speech demonstrated a mix of humor and frankness that will stand him in good stead in the next couple of years. He made a special point of noting the surge in NOTA votes — many of them switching over to express disapproval of his decision to air his and Redpath’s dirty laundry in public — and promising that, on his watch, their voices would be heard. But the message he wanted heard was this: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. There has been a lot of rancor — we must be advocates for our viewpoints, not adversaries.”

Making this easier was the vote for the other officers, a clean sweep for the so-called radical wing of the party. Wrights took vice chair with 52% of votes, 228 to Redpath’s 179 (and Phillies’ 20), thus avoiding what would have been an extremely uncomfortable partnership. On a second ballot, Bennett won secretary, defeating Mattson, who nonetheless had to work through tears to enter results for the at-large and Judicial Committee races. And the biggest cheer went up for treasurer, with Hagan beating out LP bogeyman Starr (or, as one Hagan-supporting delegate infelicitously put it, the man “with the initials A-S-S”). When asked what we could take away from this weekend’s final turn, new vice-chair Lee Wrights responded that “You want to show people something different, you got to be a little different. And something a little different happened today. Now we just gotta make sure we don’t screw it up.”

The immediate fallout of Wrights’ victory was Mary Ruwart’s withdrawal from consideration for the Judicial Committee, fearing the same sorts of conflict-of-interest charges that dogged her in the past cycle when their positions were reversed. (Would that they had thought of that before the Oregon LP deliberations began!) But even with at-large positions confirmed for Redpath and Cloud, and yes, Wayne Allen Root, the “libertarian libertarians” still had much to celebrate, not least the spots for Vohra and Starchild — the latter, especially, surprised many; from my point of view though it was a recognition well-overdue one of the most intelligent, determined libertarian activists in the fold.

The 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors.

At this point, with all ballots in and many delegates bailing out for flights or the pleasures of the Strip, I admit I joined the throng headed for the exit. It’s not that the Judicial Committee results were unimportant — in fact, as we saw throughout this convention, in some circumstances the JC is all-important — but in an ideal party cycle, they will not be invoked at all. (Also, there was sushi to be eaten.) But, regardless, the 2012–14 Judicial Committee features Bill Hall, convention MVP (Most Visible Person) Nicholas Sarwark, Brian Holtz, and Rob Latham back for another term, and Rodger Paxton, Lou Jasikoff, and Rob Power filling out the seven. And with that, the Libertarian Party officially brought its 2012 National Convention to a close.

* * *

So what do we take from all of this?

First, despite a few stutters along the way, Gary Johnson seems genuinely to have won over the party — nowhere was there general dissent against his candidacy and those few voices holding out against him were heard in distant corners of the Red Rock Resort, or isolated comments on the more radical blogs. If he maintains this level of support, he’ll have no trouble achieving his goal of being the LP standard bearer again four years from now — but, as our upcoming interview with the former governor will show, there is still some distance between the former governor’s views, and those of many within the party.

Second, and also helping Johnson among the rank-and-file, the makeup of the LP executive committee went some way towards balancing out any perception of a “conservative” takeover. Even Wes Wagner seemed to acknowledge as much, in comments following the convention on Independent Political Report: “The elections have gone a long way towards mending wounds,” he noted, and elsewhere, “I have been in communication with [Chairman] Neale about this issue and am working with him to try to ensure that Johnson/Gray are listed” on the Oregon ballot. While there are, naturally, legal issues pending, it appears the biggest storm is past, at least until the lawsuit between would-be Oregon LPs finally comes to a verdict.

Third, the 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors. Then again, if the impromptu shouting match held on the veranda balcony between members of the San Bernadino County LP is any indicator, there will be no shortage of issues to work out between then and now.

Fourth, never underestimate libertarians’ ability to create drama out of seemingly nothing. I realize, all too well, that many of the eruptions that took place over the previous 24 hours have been simmering for quite some time — but at the same time, nearly everyone I spoke with before the convention, or even up to Saturday lunchtime, expected a boring weekend in Las Vegas . . . as if that were ever going to be the case.

Ultimately, if the LP is to move forward, it must look on this past weekend in the way Sarwark suggested the night before: as the painful cleansing of a festering wound. Unlike in 2008, when the specter of schism haunted the party from the moment Bob Barr announced his candidacy, there was much more to build on in 2012 than hallway rhetoric alone. Whether the party makes use of the new foundation, or just trashes it all again, remains — as ever — in the balance.



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None of the Above

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“The party is split. It is split right down the middle.”

How did we get to this point? After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound barely healed since the last time it tore open, in 2008. But unlike the Denver debacle, this fight wasn’t over the presidential ticket — it was over the LP chair, and the direction the party is likely to take over the next two to four years, and beyond that the next decade or more.

At the beginning of the day, such an outcome seemed unimaginable. The party started off by celebrating its past — paying tribute to David Nolan and John Hospers, and inducting Tonie Nathan, Roger MacBride, and Ed Clark into the “Hall of Liberty” — before looking towards its future, in the form of the next election. But in retrospect, even this retrospection pointed to the troubles to come: throughout its 40-year existence, the party has been anything but placid; rather, prone to deep and sudden rifts, and grudges carried for many years by people who want many of the same political ends, but have utterly incompatible ideas about the means used to get there.

But this was all well in the background when the delegations gathered to compile their votes for president. Four candidates were nominated: Gary Johnson, Lee Wrights, Jim Burns, and Carl Person, with the latter two making their token count overnight. (A motion from the floor was made to suspend normal rules and nominate Ron Paul. It failed spectularly.)

After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound.

The nominating speaker for Wrights took a roundabout way of getting to his candidate, going via Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul and not mentioning Wrights’ name for a full ten minutes. He passed off to Mary Ruwart to second, introducing her as “the woman who should have been our 2008 nominee.” (And he’s right, they should have — but their campaign botched it.) Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.” Speaking of Wrights’ ability to get “more bang for the buck”; she provided as evidence two laughable TV spots, one a half turn away from a used car ad, the next a parade of doughy, beardy white males talking about the wars they would end. Accepting the nomination, Wrights said: “I am not at war. And if we say that enough, they can’t have them any more.” Not sure that’s how that works, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Carl Person’s speaker only used a few minutes of his time, and spent that explaining who Carl Person is. And necessarily so, since many people didn’t know or, in the bigger problem for his campaign, didn’t care. Person, in turn, presented himself to the assembled delegates first with a ramble about all the jobs he held in his youth, and then — in the most tangential of segues — explaining his jobs program, which seemed designed to produce someone that can teach him how to use the Internet, or possibly keep kids off his lawn.

Jim Burns, speaking for himself, gave Patrick Henry’s speech “Liberty or Death” speech as his own nominating statement. He did this in character, while wearing a powdered wig. Once done, he removed the hairpiece, and took a few minutes to beg for the tokens it would take to get him onto the VP ballot.

Gary Johnson’s speaker went straight to the former governor’s experience and his suitability to run against the two major-party candidates. “No one will ever confuse him for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.” His second picked up the torch, speaking of him as the “most qualified candidate we have ever had.” Johnson in accepting hammered on the resume again: mentioning once more his vetoes, but also his popularity in office: “People in New Mexico waved at me with all five fingers, not just one.”

He slipped only once, in bringing up the Fair Tax yet again in front of an audience hostile to any taxation. But wisely he went straight from that into his promise to end our wars in foreign countries, and on drugs too — neatly appropriating Wrights’ slogan as his own. He distanced himself from Bob Barr and the 2008 fiasco, and even more so from the two major parties: citing an NPR question where interviewer asked him, if you were on the torture rack, and required to cast a vote for Romney or Obama (and what a telling construction that is, NPR using as casual metaphor the torture they have colluded in normalizing) he says he would rather die than vote for either. Oh, and in case you didn’t remember, there was also that “climbing Mount Everest” thing.

Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.”

On the whole it was a great speech; according to at least one seasoned observer, his best as a Libertarian. Any damage done him by the previous night’s debate — likely minimal, if even that — was wiped away, making a first-ballot victory all the more likely. All it would take is 50% plus one vote — and as it was unlikely Burns or Person would be taking many, there was little standing in the way of Johnson’s coronation.

Little, that is, except nearly an hour of deliberation, tabulation, and state-by-state recitation of delegate votes, with each state of course tossing in their little tidbit about their libertarian past or present. In almost all cases, though, their libertarian future lay with Gary Johnson, who handily took the presidential nomination with 419 delegate votes, just over 70% of the total available. Wrights, as expected, was second best at 152; Burns and Person scraped a mere handful apiece.

In his acceptance speech, Johnson thanked his family first and foremost, even noting his daughter’s feedback on the debate: “Dad, you did great, but you got your ass kicked by Lee Wrights.” He paid tribute to Wrights’ campaign, and Wrights, graciously, said it was to come together as a party: “Let’s get this guy elected.”

Of course, R. Lee was hoping the party would come together in support of a Johnson/Wrights ticket. But Johnson moved on to endorse Judge Jim Gray from the podium, citing him as the perfect running mate. Gray announced only days before the convention, and his promotional materials had an unavoidably slapdash look to them — folders with a brief media release and a few pictures of the Judge against a blue sky, looking pensive and, presumably, vice-presidential.

In some ways Gray is a rarity. Usually the presidential losers end up contesting the VP — few come to the convention specifically speaking the second-tier nod. But as the presidential candidate’s handpicked running mate, Gray had the big guns (such as they are, in the LP) lining up behind him — including David Bergland in the role of nominating speaker. Gray himself emphasized the need, as a party, to win — “We are not a philosophical debate society. We are a political party.” — and encouraged audience to repeat the word “Win” whenever it’s said from the stage, which is not at all cultish or creepy.

In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

Wrights’ nominating speaker went on a bizarre tangent about Ron Paul, and again almost ten minutes passed before the candidate’s name was actually mentioned. The seconding speaker, Nicholas Sarwark — about whom much more below — made an actually coherent case for Wrights, noting he would providing balance to the ticket, and represent the “libertarian wing of the libertarian party.” There were about 15 other uses of the word libertarian tossed in there, but then tautology is the order of the day at political conventions. The line landed, at least, which wasn't the case with his Simpsons reference — it's a pretty damning indicator about the age of this crowd that next to no one seemed to know who Kodos and Kang were.

On to the balltoing, common sense intervened for the vote and the state-by-state roll call was suspended; when the dust settled Jim Gray had a comfortable first-ballot victory, taking 357 votes to Wrights’ 229. In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

The answer, of course, is plenty. The day’s business was set to conclude with the election of a new chair, a fairly straightforward affair between the present chair, Mark Hinkle, and LNC at-large member Mark Rutherford. But this discounts a serious candidate that built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Enter Nick Sarwark. He spoke in support of NOTA, laying out in brief the reasons he felt unable to support either candidate — both tied to the Oregon credentialing crisis of the first day, and the party’s overruling of a report on that matter by the Judicial Committee, on which Sarwark sits — but also reminding delegates of the power of NOTA as a political concept. As he summed up later: “It’s telling people, if you’re big enough assholes, we’re just going to go our own way, cut our own door, and go around you.”

But for Sarwark, the speech was primarily a rhetorical gesture, something he thought would get “10 or 15 votes” — not taking into account either the dissatisfaction that led to printed signs advocating “No One” for LNC Chair, or the opportunists who saw a chance to boot out both nominated candidates in favor of one not implicated in what they saw as the present board’s failings. Between the two, support for NOTA was strong enough at 101 votes to prevent either Rutherford or Hinkle from claiming a majority. Instead, with Rutherford beating out Hinkle 228–221, the latter was eliminated, and the final ballot would be between Rutherford and NOTA.

One serious candidate for chair built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Or so it seemed. Because when the votes were counted, NOTA had won 273–269, and accusations of vote tampering were immediately in the air. Acting chair Bill Redpath called for a revote, which ended Rutherford 278, NOTA 277, write-in Sam Sloan 1. Because Rutherford did not take a majority plus one, he could not be certified as victor. Usually in such circumstances the loser would concede, but NOTA was for obvious reasons unable to do so. As Rutherford also did not concede, and with time running out on the day’s session, Redpath ruled that Sloan, the write-in candidate, was eliminated, and the delegates would reconvene the next day to vote once again between Rutherford and NOTA, as well as all the other officer positions.

Tumult, chaos, anarchy — in the metaphorical, and not the medieval Icelandic sense. The ruling set up a night packed with exactly the sort of back-room meetings and opaque dealings that Sarwark had hoped to expose with his NOTA advocacy. “This was about ripping open a wound that’s been festering for a long time, getting in there and cleaning it out, and applying some Bactine to it. And that will make it heal up, but in the meantime Bactine stings like a motherfucker.”

So there was never any concerted attempt by any group — some observers even calling it the “family” wing of the party — to use NOTA as a way to force open the chair’s race? No, Sarwark said. There was no conspiracy — and the only reason those observers saw one was because, if the tables were turned, a conspiracy is how they would have handled it. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like — well, you know.”

The greatest worry at this point was that, with the chair’s election lingering to the next morning, time would run out before any of the other party positions — officers, at-large members, Judicial committee — could be decided on the floor, leaving them all (except the Judicial Committee, which couldn’t be handled this way) to be appointed by the newly-installed LNC board.

With all the manipulations in motion, however unintentionally, by Sarwark’s NOTA gambit, there was no lack of context for Ed Clark’s banquet talk about the challenges facing the Libertarian Party. Though he spoke mostly of the challenges overcome in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the rifts that periodically tore the party apart at that time, the applications for the present moment were clear: whatever the feud, whatever the obstacle, it must be overcome so that the fight for liberty could proceed.

Not until the next day would we see how well that message sank in — or if it even did at all.

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Arrival at Red Rock

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In some ways it’s all so familiar — traveling westward to cover a Libertarian National Convention where a (relatively) high-profile former Republican office-holder is expected to sweep away a field of Libertarian sidelights and gain the party’s presidential nomination.

And yet, it is also all so different. For starters, Gary Johnson is no Bob Barr. In his time as governor of New Mexico, Johnson never postured as a drug warrior or tried to “defend” marriage by legislation or other means — in fact, legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage are probably the two positions of his most likely to attract any voters hesitating between the Romney rock and the Obama hard place.

Thus far his approach has been about as different from Barr’s as can be; where the latter marched through the convention areas with a flock of operatives keeping away the riffraff, Johnson has been approachable, and his staffers friendly and accommodating, within reason (and the ability to make that last distinction is vital for anyone attempting to navigate any large gatherings of libertarians). Johnson’s team has clearly also learned another lesson Barr failed to: recruiting a VP long before the ballots get filled out. Hence he can welcome onto his prospective ticket the highly respected Judge Jim Gray, and not risk the baggage of an intolerably chipper huckster or other, even less sane second.

All of which means precisely zero, at this point. No matter the outcome of the convention or the general election though, it’s hard to imagine Johnson ever saying that libertarians ought to vote for Newt Gingrich for anything. And if nothing else, that is already a change worth celebrating.

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One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is airport security. It's far past cliché by now, and yet the TSA keeps finding ways to top themselves: this time it wasn’t just ludicrously inefficient layout or mufull-body scanners, not just the removal of belts and shoes and the ritual offering of the clear plastic bag of fluids—no, this time they added, at the end of it all, a sign that read “RECOMBOBULATION AREA.” Ostensibly this is the place where you put your clothes back on, reassemble your luggage, get everything back together, but it’s also as close we'll ever get to a direct admission that the goal of the checkpoint is not to stop terrorists, but to discombobulate everyone coming through.



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