Libertarian Party Optimism

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I believe that within the next 50 years the Libertarian Party will become a major force in American politics, taking 20 to 30% of the vote nationally and electing a wide swath of candidates.

One reason is that the Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts. Another may be that if Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becomes president and socialism destroys the economy, Generation Z will flock to the LP.

But today, unlike the tomorrow of the future, the Libertarian Party is held together by duct tape, some sticky half-chewed gum, and some old frayed shoe laces. This was evident at the 2019 convention of the Manhattan Libertarian Party. A lot of people were there, old and young, party stalwarts and people new to the LP, but the event was cozy and unpretentious, lacking the grand pomp and pageantry of a Democrat or Republican rally. It was held in a giant room in the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant in Manhattan, in what seems to be a Ukrainian state building. I would not have been surprised if Russian spies were listening to every word said in that room. The centerpiece of the event, other than the election of the 2019 Manhattan LP officers, was speeches given by Matt Welch of Reason magazine and Larry Sharpe, LP gubernatorial candidate. Sharpe got enough votes for the New York Libertarian Party to become an officially recognized party in the state, with full ballot access, after waging a courageous yet doomed campaign against Democratic juggernaut Andrew Cuomo and his corrupt New York political machine.

The Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts.

Hearing Mr. Sharpe speak, I found that he was a real libertarian, a smart man, a good public speaker, and a fighter, and he seemed to have a firm grasp of important issues. That having been said, it is clear why he did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton. He also lacks the raw charisma and the hypnotizing, mesmerizing rhetorical skill of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other populists. If you are not a member of the elite and can't be a populist, it is tough to win. Just being a nice guy is not enough, as Sharpe, Gary Johnson, and other Libertarians have learned every time they’ve run for office.

There is an important question, as the Libertarian Party matures, of whether it will evolve into a populist party or try to be seen as a respectable mainstream party fielding "real, legitimate" politicians. That tension was present at the convention, perhaps never more palpably than while Matt Welch of Reason spoke. I am not going to rehash what he said, but instead reflect on the role of Reason in the current moment of libertarianism. Reason projects an image of a libertarian version of the mainstream media, full of polished experts with extensive knowledge who come across as highly professional and whom it is easy to take seriously. Indeed, Reason is a libertarian medium that wants to be taken seriously by the establishment and the political elites, to move the needle on policy and to be read by the intellectual and educated classes. So, too, within the Libertarian Party, many of us want candidates who will be taken seriously by the voters and fit in with the political elites and the real politicians and not be a mere joke or token candidate who can't win.

But there is a catch. Core libertarian policies, such as abolishing the income tax, ending the Federal Reserve, putting currency back on a gold standard, terminating Social Security, legalizing the wide range of drugs, are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment. There are simply too many ways the government helps the rich, too many Wall Street bailouts, too many efforts of educated elites to use government to control the great unwashed masses of the public, for the educated class or the political elites to turn libertarian. So if the LP runs real candidates who want to be “taken seriously,” it loses something of its credibility and its integrity with its original ideals. Each Libertarian must grapple with what to sacrifice — principles, or being accepted by the establishment.

It is clear why the LP gubernatorial candidate did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton.

You see the problem. Matt Welch even had to cut his speech short at the end because he was scheduled to appear on Kennedy’s show later that night. She and John Stossel do a lot to fold libertarianism into the Fox News vision. There is a certain type of person I think of as a Reason reader — affluent, young, male, highly educated, and very angry that he has to pay taxes and isn't allowed to smoke weed. He reads Reason with a sense of rebellion, yet as a member of the middle class or upper class he is himself a part of the establishment. Such people will one day face a choice — stay true to being real libertarians, or be taken seriously by the educated class and take their rightful place among the elite.

Still, by putting up a fight to be taken seriously as libertarians, Reason and people like Matt Welch slowly but surely shift the public's conception of what is to be taken seriously, and I am optimistic that in about 50 years it will shift enough for libertarians with integrity to our core principles to be taken seriously and be viewed as legitimate and get elected. If and when that happens, the tension and contradiction between being a real libertarian and being a member of the political class or the mainstream media establishment may end, and being libertarian may become mainstream.

This is a long way of explaining why I viewed Matt with caution and a sense of tension, despite the fact that he gave a fun, enjoyable talk about himself and Reason, and shared an interesting anecdote about Ayn Rand threatening to sue Reason in its early days after it acquired Nathaniel Branden's mailing list.

Core libertarian policies are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all answer for a group as diverse as libertarians. During Q and A with Mr. Welch and Mr. Sharpe, there was some talk of whether libertarians should be radical or be moderate and seek the space between Left and Right. The consensus seemed to be that the moderate center is an illusion and radicals are more likely to get elected. Moderate or radical, freak or conformist sell-out, is another way to frame this question.

For decades, my other tribe, the LGBT community, has been grappling with whether to go mainstream or persist as proud to be freaks, and we still have not decided as a movement. There is still a cold war between the advocates of gay marriage and those among us who oppose marriage as an institution. So, too, may it be with the libertarian movement: an unending war between radicals and pragmatists.

The future of the Libertarian Party looks bright. Although the party today is small and splintered, check back in 50 years. I believe my prediction will prove correct.




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Will the LP Be Destroyed by Victories?

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The thesis of this reflection is simple: if the Republicans move to the right on economic issues, trying to attract fiscal-Right voters, and stay with the Right on guns, while the Democrats move to their social left by supporting legalization of recreational cannabis, sex workers, and gambling, then every Libertarian Party issue will be championed by either Democrats or Republicans who will have a better chance of winning elections. At that point, the LP will have no reason to exist.

The GOP recently passed tax cuts, and the current White House is aggressively deregulating. The LP can do little that the GOP is not already doing. The GOP is also extremely strong on gun rights and opposition to gun control, and, like the Democrats’, its foreign policy is veering toward military disengagement abroad.

The LP has won by forcing the two major parties to embrace libertarian issues in a way that would have been untenable and even unthinkable in previous generations.

Meanwhile, state and local Democratic parties are increasingly willing to reform criminal laws to legalize recreational cannabis. Right now it is also a vanguard or vogue position among far-left Democrats to support legalizing prostitution (a position that has long been championed by gay rights groups on the far left). There are whispers in New York that the Democrats in the state legislature intend to legalize both recreational cannabis and sex workers, a path that other state Democratic Parties are also treading.

The LP has won by forcing the two major parties to embrace libertarian issues in a way that would have been untenable and even unthinkable in previous generations. But take away weed, whores, guns, and tax cuts, and what is left for the LP to talk about? Nothing. There may be nothing more for the LP to do. But do not worry. I have a solution to this problem.

The one thing liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans cannot do is create a social space uniquely for libertarians. The Libertarian Party should essentially reimagine itself as a social club for liberty where running candidates is a hobby but the real purpose is building a community. The LP can organize meetings, sponsor online events, build forums for communication, assist the authorship and distribution of ideological content, and fund academic scholarships. The LP will probably never win elections even if it tries, so it has nothing to lose by moving in this direction.

But take away weed, whores, guns, and tax cuts, and what is left for the LP to talk about?

An organized movement built from LP grassroots community activism could then trickle down into the mass of mainstream voters, keeping the GOP on the far Right and forcing Democrats to defend the social Left. Other than providing services uniquely to libertarians, there may be nothing the LP can do that Republicans or Democrats could not do better in today's political climate.




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Should Libertarians Run for President?

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Who would be the ideal Libertarian presidential candidate for 2020? Does he (or she) exist? Will we get anyone like this person, or will it be business as usual?

We’ll find out soon enough.

One of the reasons we keep getting candidates many of us don’t want is that we can’t all agree on what the Libertarian Party nominee ought to do. Should he educate the public about what libertarians believe? Should he play the spoiler and trip up big-government Republicans? Would it be best for him to rack up the biggest possible numbers on election day? Or should he really, honest-to-gosh try to win the election?

Power is the only language the political universe understands. Spoiler power is all we can expect, at present, to have.

I think we can all agree that we want a country where the Libertarian choice would prevail. But we’re not terribly close to having it. In the meantime, I fail to see where “swinging for the fence” is going to get us.

Even if we dislike political necessity, because it goes against our convictions, we must understand it if we are to increase our influence. The only way our candidates can educate the public is by getting coverage in the media. To achieve this, we must make the media sit up and take notice. We do that by creating a disturbance in their universe.

A spoiler can have that effect. If candidates seriously threaten to take votes away from the media’s anointed contenders, they begin to attract attention. The threatened party will, sooner than later, begin to court potential spoiler votes.

Power is the only language the political universe understands. Spoiler power is all we can expect, at present, to have. We need to quit apologizing for this potential and embrace it instead.

We can all agree that we want a country where the Libertarian choice would prevail. But we’re not terribly close to having it.

The candidacy of Ron Paul demonstrated that a Republican can run as a spoiler and exert considerable influence on the public. If a Libertarian Party candidate could grab a share of the vote only as large as Paul’s, he or she would be in an excellent position to educate — as Rep. Paul has.

Candidates who want to be taken seriously won’t come out and admit they don’t expect to win all the marbles. But if they truly believe they will win as Libertarians, then they’ve lost whatever marbles they ever had. They’re better off simply stating — if they want to enjoy the success possible for them — what will be the truth: that they offer an alternative to Republican or Democratic options. In other words, to move the cumbersome machinery of the election to a different place.

Voters want to believe that casting their ballot will have some effect. If they know a candidate isn’t going to win the election, they at least hope to influence its outcome as strongly as possible. Libertarian ideas are popular with many people who don’t consider themselves libertarians. A candidate who stops pandering to established interests and stands for our values has a good chance of siphoning away a contender’s votes. The greater effect that has on the outcome of the election, the more likely Republican (and to a far lesser degree, Democratic) candidates may be to adopt pro-liberty positions.

Candidates who want to be taken seriously won’t come out and admit they don’t expect to win all the marbles. But if they truly believe they will win as Libertarians, then they’ve lost whatever marbles they ever had.

The next president who is in any shape or form libertarian will be a Republican. Again, we’re perfectly free to dislike this. That doesn’t change the fact that if one of our own is elected, it will be from the GOP ticket. The threat of voting for spoiler Libertarian Party candidates can provide the leverage to move a Rand Paul or a Justin Amash into winning the GOP nomination. Once nominated, in the general election that person would stand an excellent chance.

We’re not going to love everything about a Republican candidate. I have serious issues with Paul because I suspect he’s something of a closet social conservative. But though he says things rightwing culture warriors like, thus far his record shows him to be reliably libertarian. I’m not overly worried that, if he were elected president, he would turn into Jerry Falwell.

Money spent on the presidential race could instead be used to fund down-ballot races, especially locally, where LP candidates have a real shot at winning.

Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a libertarian. The few bones he’s thrown us were certainly not motivated by any fear that a more liberty-loving challenger would defeat him in the 2020 primary. But if one does indeed run next time, we need to look long and hard at the possibility of registering Republican long enough to vote for him or her in the primary.

Libertarians should run for president only if they can change the outcome of the race. That’s the only way they’ll be noticed by the media, which is the only way they can educate the public. Any other candidacy for the highest office in the land is a waste of time. The money spent could instead be used to fund down-ballot races, especially locally, where LP candidates have a real shot at winning.

I have no idea, yet, whom I’ll vote for next year. But I will only vote for the Libertarian option if I feel that he or she is serious about being a presence in the election. I owe no one my vote, and I won’t be taken for granted. I want my vote to count. That will only happen if the candidate I vote for counts, too.




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Is My Vote Wasted?

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The purpose of this Reflection is not to argue for or against any specific position but merely to articulate and clarify various arguments. The issue is simple: if I vote for the Libertarian Party candidate, is my vote wasted?

Here are 25 responses to that question.

(1) If I vote Libertarian and the Republican candidate loses to the Democrat then my vote was indeed wasted and could have made a difference if cast for the Republican.

(2) But virtually no elections are decided by exactly one vote, so my vote was wasted either way.

(3) But if everyone who voted Libertarian had voted Republican, or Democratic, that could have made a difference.

(4) But I am only responsible for myself individually, not for the entire "libertarian voting bloc," so I shouldn't think like a collectivist.

(5) But that is a realistic way to think.

(6) One vote almost never decides an election, so shouldn’t I vote for the best candidate with the purest principles, as a personal statement?

(7) But voter turnout rates are low, so every vote counts, if only as a measure of opinion. In fact a lot of effort and money goes into getting every last voter available.

(8) Wouldn’t it be most idealistic to cast a vote that could make a real difference for real people? Which means . . .

(A) voting for a candidate who can win; or

(B) voting for a Libertarian, because this will force the GOP closer to libertarianism, because it will need to try to get our votes.

(9) If everyone like me voted for the LP, then couldn’t the LP win?

(10) The LP fundamentally does not care about winning elections, but the GOP does, so how can the LP win anything?

(11) Aren’t Republican candidates better that Libertarians, because they really enact laws? And aren’t most Republicans sympathetic to libertarianism, anyway?

(12) But aren’t Republicans really no better than Democrats? They support big government when it suits them; they are conservatives, not libertarians, so a vote for the GOP is a wasted vote.

(13) If I cast a vote for anyone, am I not giving my consent to and endorsing the big government state and its taxes, wars, regulations, plans for gun control, etc.?

(14) Won’t the big government machine steamroll on, regardless of whether I cast a vote? So I might as well try to vote for a politician who will fight to slow it down.

(15) It costs practically nothing to vote, and the marginal impact I might have is wasted if I don't.

(16) But actually going to the polls and taking an hour off from work to cast a vote is too much trouble, relative to how little my own vote matters.

(17) Politics is a dirty business, so I don't want to get involved by voting.

(18) Politics is a dirty business, and the only way to clean it up is for people like me to get involved. So I have to vote. Even if my vote is wasted today, it starts the process of moving toward a tomorrow when my vote will not be wasted.

(19) If a Republican runs against a Democrat, and the Libertarian gets 4% of the vote and the Republican loses by 2% and I voted Libertarian and the Democrats achieve world domination, then I am to blame.

(20) But if the other 96% had voted with me, then the Libertarian would have won, so they are to blame. And if the Republican candidate had been very libertarian-leaning he would have taken half the LP vote anyway, so he is to blame.

(21) My vote is my own; it belongs to me. So I owe no duty to do anything other than vote my conscience and my values, which are Libertarian.

(22) Libertarian Party candidates often disagree with voters on important issues, such as abortion or immigration or privatization. If I vote along Libertarian Party lines, I may be voting for individuals who differ substantially from me or the party, or both.

(23) As a member of the American experiment in democracy, initiated by Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and other brave men, I owe a duty to my nation to act as a member of the body politic, which includes a duty to research the candidates and cast a vote that is intelligently designed to do the most good for the country by maximizing support for the most electable candidate who would also be competent, sane, and reasonable in his policies, which most often means the Republican candidate.

(24) The real war in American politics is between Democrats and Republicans, so any vote outside that system is a wasted vote.

(25) The establishment sells the idea that it is a two-party system, but if the public became aware of the nation's third largest political party the system would become a three-party competition and the LP could realistically go from 4% to 30% of the vote. The reason we don't get votes is because nobody knows who we are and what we stand for, not because voters don't like us.

* * *

I leave my readers with a question: which of these positions do you agree or disagree with, and why?




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An Open Letter to the Libertarian Party

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There are some topics that every libertarian loves to argue about — Austrian economics, minarchy vs. anarchy, Rand vs. Rothbard, why that libertarian person is right and every other libertarian is wrong. A similar topic is why the Libertarian Party can't win elections. I will address that topic here.

Why can't the Libertarian Party win elections? The answer is, obviously, that the two major parties get all the power, incumbents, media coverage, and donor money, as well as activists from among the liberals and conservatives, who make up the vast majority of all political activists. It really is a simple answer that is not hard to understand and is a necessary and sufficient explanation. The real question is: what can we do about it?

These are some answers to that second, tougher question.

1. Learn some lessons from the software industry.

It is textbook best practices in Silicon Valley to sell software using the "freemium" model: give the software away for free, then charge users a (hefty) fee to unlock the best features. Membership in the LP should be free (right now it costs $25). You would then get more people — especially poor young college students who are the voters of tomorrow — into the LP, and the ones who love it can then be charged $200 to join the Pantheon of Libertarian Heroes (call it whatever you want, the premium level of membership).

Why can't the Libertarian Party win elections? The answer is, obviously, that the two major parties get all the power, incumbents, media coverage, and donor money.

Why can't the Libertarian Party win elections? The answer is, obviously, that the two major parties get all the money, power, incumbents, media coverage, and dono

In this way, the LP would get more members and more money, net. If this strategy didn't maximize profits, then Google and Facebook would sure as hell not be using it. The last time I checked, Facebook was free, and made a ton of money.

Also, get rid of that obnoxious loyalty oath you have to swear to join the LP. Every real libertarian already agrees with it, and the young people who are just discovering liberty for the first time find it really weird.

2. Make the platform conform to the candidates; let each candidate tailor it to maximize his or her chances of winning.

I know LP members who point to the platform as if it were Gospel when it supports their own positions, then scream bloody murder on issues where the platform differs from their ideas. Why even have a platform, if it does more harm than good?

As I see it, there are two types of candidates who could win elections — the ones who will poach Republican votes, and the ones who will poach moderate and center votes. The former should run to the right of the Republicans on every issue from gun control to immigration to tax cuts, and steal GOP votes by embracing those GOP values more effectively than the GOP candidates do themselves. The latter should run to the right of the GOP on the economy and to the left of the Democrats on social issues such as drug legalization and (if candidates feel this way) on immigration and sex and gender issues. The former should say they will kick all illegal immigrants out and deny government funding for abortions and pass laws denying any special treatment to LGBTs under the laws. The latter should say they will give all illegal immigrants amnesty and legalize all recreational drugs and pass laws giving women the right to abortions (so long as they aren’t paid for by the state) and enforce laws to protect LGBT people from violence. They should both be saying they will end the Fed and eliminate the income tax.

If this strategy didn't maximize profits, then Google and Facebook would sure as hell not be using it.

I am not talking about a GOP candidate and an LP candidate. I am talking about two LP candidates, each of whom could win in the right electorate, for example, if the former runs against a moderate in Montana, or if the latter runs against a really creepy corrupt idiot in New Jersey.

Each LP candidate should have the freedom to choose the issues he or she cares strongly about and then run on those to the max. Having one party platform is like a straitjacket that traps candidates and prevents them from being who they really are.

To extend my example, there are many ways to interpret core libertarian beliefs. Of course, an LGBT person should be treated with equality, hence no worse (or better) than a hetero citizen. The police should protect LGBT people from violence, just as they should protect everyone else from violence. A woman should be free to decide how she feels about abortion, but the taxpayers should not be the ones funding abortions. Thus, the former and latter candidate in my example above are both principled libertarians, but they could appeal to voters in a way that could poach either red or blue votes. To win, of course, a candidate must get all core LP votes, the "real libertarian" voters, while at the same time poaching a big chunk of red or blue or center-moderate votes. That is the only way the electoral math enables an LP candidate to win.

3. Choose candidates with charisma and a strong social media presence.

I extremely dislike Donald Trump as a person, but, say what you will about him, he was the GOP's most electable candidate, and I think it boils down to his having (A) the gift of gab, an incredible ability to speak clearly and strongly, (B) a strong social media presence online, and (C) an eccentric, larger-than-life personality. It has been said that Ron Paul was America's "crazy uncle," but if we could find a candidate who was in the LP and who had real charisma, as he did, and was good on Facebook and Twitter, I think that person would be electable against a weak incumbent opponent. And many Republicans and Democrats are weak, watery, timid, corrupt, unsympathetic cowards. Hillary was not the only one, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Many Republicans and Democrats are weak, watery, timid, corrupt, unsympathetic cowards.

There are objective ways to measure charisma, such as one’s number of online followers, the number of shares of one’s social media posts, public speaking experience, and awards won for it. Such indications of charisma should be a factor in LP primaries. Instead, the LP seems to have gone in the opposite direction, nominating weak, watery, timid candidates who try to seem like "serious, legitimate" politicians. We will never be better than the establishment at being the establishment. We are the outsider, and we can be the best outsider.

4. Generate PR.

The great thing about media coverage is that it's free. But the media cover news stories that generate eyeballs, because, for them, eyeballs mean more advertisers, and more advertisers mean more profit for them. There's nothing wrong with this, but we must understand and exploit it. Shock value attracts attention.

Say that you will legalize heroin and prostitution. Say that you will end the Fed. Say that you will cut property taxes down to zero, then privatize the schools that then have no tax base to pay for them. You can go door to door campaigning and post a video of a particularly saucy back and forth with someone about freedom vs. regulation and what it means for real people and their kids. You can notify the local media, then dress up like Uncle Sam and start throwing wads of real, actual dollar bills in the air for people to grab, with a huge sign as a backdrop pointing out the national debt and the dollar amounts of government waste in various programs.

We must understand and exploit media coverage. Shock value attracts attention.

Anything to get on TV. That is how successful candidates beat an incumbent.

This is my advice to the Libertarian Party and its members. Dear LP, please take this advice and use it as you see fit.

Thanks,
Russ




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Weld’s High-Minded Politics

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A couple of weeks ago I saw Bob Woodward on TV, all a-twitter about how the Libertarian ticket should drop out of the race immediately and back Clinton for the presidency. I thought this was one of the most ridiculous displays of establishmentarianism I’d ever seen. It was as if one of the elite parties were a magnet to which all worthless metal filings must be drawn.

But now, if reports are true, LP vice-presidential candidate William Weld is following Woodward’s advice. Although the former Republican governor of Massachusetts swore to be a Libertarian for life, he’s now saying that, uh, er, he guesses he won’t “drop them” (emphasis added) until the campaign is over, while suggesting that as far as he’s concerned it’s over now.

Weld indicated that it would be “fun” to be one of the wizards who worked, post-election, to put the Republican Party back together again.

Weld indicated that he planned to spend all his time from now on attacking Donald Trump, because of his foreign policy ideas. But despite the fact that this year the LP has waged a vigorous and effective advertising war against both Republicans and Democrats, and polling shows that the LP is taking more votes from Clinton than from Trump, Weld seems to have no plans to continue the critique of Clinton. Quite the contrary. Of the Platonic form of establishment politics, Weld now says he’s “not sure anybody is more qualified than Hillary Clinton to be president of the United States.”

I can think of a few that are more qualified. Start with all the Disney characters.

And remember that Weld got the platform from which he says such things out of libertarian money and libertarian zeal.

But speaking of establishmentarians, Weld indicated that it would be “fun” to be one of the wizards who worked, post-election, to put the Republican Party back together again, ruling the Grand Old Party in concert with (guess who?) Mitt Romney and Haley Barbour.

William Weld, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour . . . “O brave new world, that has such people in it.”




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Education or Fantasy?

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When asked, “Why a third party, when it has no chance of winning?”, supporters of the Libertarian Party and other Thirds usually say, “We’re running an educational campaign.” That makes sense. It would be several steps beyond sense to spend your time figuring out ways in which you might actually win. But that’s what Gary Johnson, presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, seems to be doing, with some help from the media.

Interviewed on August 28 by Chris Wallace of Fox News, Johnson said that, given the “polarization” of the two major-party candidates, his party “might actually run the table” — this year’s cliché for “winning big.”

This logic defies analysis: how would Democrat vs. Republican polarization induce voters to go for a polarization of Libertarians vs. Democrats and Republicans?

I don’t know whether it’s more likely for Johnson to win outright than to win in a House election, since there is no chance of either.

Wallace, who should know better, tried to save the situation by projecting a future in which Johnson could get a majority in enough states to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where he could emerge victorious. Johnson has encouraged that idea in the past. But this time he said, “The object is to win outright.”

I don’t know whether it’s more likely for him to win outright than to win in a House election, since there is no chance of either. If you think it would be more of a feat to gain a majority in the Electoral College than to be elected after throwing the election into the House, consider the fact that voting in the House would take place by state, and the Republicans have a majority in most state delegations.

What these fantasies have to do with an educational campaign, besides discrediting it, I don’t know. Maybe, in some way, they Keep Hope Alive. But that wasn’t Johnson’s concern when he agreed that, if he doesn’t get into the presidential candidates’ debate, “It’s game over.”

I would like to see Johnson in the debate. His presence would make it possible for me to watch the affair without having a physician at my side, ready to administer emergency aid. But if he doesn’t get in, is he just going to sit out the rest of the campaign?




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Countdown and Aftermath

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The bylaws of the Libertarian Party stipulate that, prior to the vice presidential election, the presidential nominee be granted five minutes prior to voting “for the purpose of endorsing or objecting to” any of the candidates. Gary Johnson only used four of those minutes, and he used them entirely to plead with the assembly to elect William Weld — even closing his speech on a note of desperation: “Please, please give me Weld. Please. Please!”

If any of the attendees didn’t realize by then that the Weld candidacy was in trouble . . . well, then they hadn’t been paying any attention whatsoever. But this was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback (and, yes, boring) demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Let’s back up a little bit to the VP nominating speeches, the first business after the assembly returned to order. The caprice of the 20-sided die determined that Weld would be the first candidate to speak, which meant all the others after him — in order, Judd Weiss, Derrick Grayson, Alicia Dearn, Larry Sharpe, and Will Coley — could take their shots after. The last two, in particular, had impressed in the debates a few nights previous for their passion and personal narratives; their alliance would determine whether the NeverWeld movement could deny Johnson the “running mate of his wildest dreams.”

This was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include the former Massachusetts governor? Johnson drew justified scorn for referring to Weld as “the original libertarian,” but the sentiment behind his infelicitous phrasing is apt: Weld was one of the few figures with a national profile who spoke in favor of gay marriage — about the same time Bob Barr was drafting, and Bill Clinton was signing (with Hillary’s outspoken support), the Defense of Marriage Act. Weld also called for a drawdown in the War on Drugs, and the legalization of medical marijuana in particular. Prior to his gubernatorial days, he went tough on white-collar crime, an increasingly popular position among Libertarians who see Wall Street and Washington DC locked in loving embrace.

The opposite case is easier to enumerate. First, whatever his previous inclinations, Weld had hardly even looked at the LP before (in 2006, he briefly considered seeking the Party’s nomination for governor in New York; another black mark in the minds of many). He backed Romney in 2012, and Kasich this year, before Johnson came calling; even when he could have backed a fellow Republican-turned-Libertarian in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama instead (not that Barr was long for the LP . . .). Second, in 1990 he supported various restrictions on gun ownership, something which plays particularly badly in a group where Second Amendment rights may be more of a third rail than abortion or anything else. Third, Weld’s Massachusetts was hardly a model of fiscal prudence; admittedly, there was a great deal of bleeding to staunch after Michael Dukakis’ tenure, but like so many politicians Weld lost his nerve once actually in office. There’s more numbers to be had, but I’ll skip ahead: lastly, even now, he believes that Hillary Clinton, who has overseen a disastrous war in Libya, and who would gladly have added another in Syria (and probably still will), has been a “good Secretary of State.”

In his speech, Johnson emphasized what Weld would bring to the ticket: fundraising knowhow, and media access. The latter had already been proven on day one at the media credentials table, and underlined every day since with the numbers of reporters on the ground, many of whom acknowledged that they would never have been dispatched to Orlando if the dual-governor ticket weren’t a strong likelihood (and, of course, if the major-party candidates weren’t both so dreadful). Give me William Weld, he said, and anything is possible. Anyone else, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity would be lost.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include former Massachusetts governor William Weld?

It was a hard sell. Weld’s first nominating speaker, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, rang his endorsement of Weld, despite his disappointment at being eclipsed in the role. For that, he drew calls of “Statist!” from the crowd — something which is less true of Gray than possibly of any other single jurist in this country’s history. Things got tougher still with Marc Allan Feldman spoke as Weld’s second nominator — a speech which several of the anti-Weld radicals received as betrayal, though “backhanded” would be a mild way of describing the endorsement. Feldman felt that, with Johnson taking the top of the ticket, he should be given the running mate he pled for, and he agreed that a Johnson-Weld ticket would get far more media play than any alternative. That was it for the positives; the rest was taken up with every reason Weld shouldn’t get the post.

After some befuddled applause, and a few more boos, Weld rose and gave an animated, almost fiery speech, his best statement of the convention. While admitting his lack of familiarity with the LP and its workings, he nonetheless pledged to be “Libertarian for life,” and to work not only for his own campaign The party platform, meanwhile, which he had read two weeks before when considering Johnson’s proposal, he found elegant, “like the Declaration of Independence.” He noted that the whirlwind process had been “a learning experience,” that he would continue improving, and that he was “open to suggestion” as to how.

As Weld went to take media questions, Judd Weiss stepped up, not to make his case for vice president, but to pull out of the race. Weiss had been McAfee’s right-hand man, and with his boss out of the picture, he used his time to promote their video series and speak to the importance of supporting the grassroots and downballot candidates — noting that what he saw in the LP was a marketing problem; specifically, that the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Interestingly, he endorsed radical favorite Will Coley rather than McAfee’s preferred backup candidate, Derrick Grayson, who was an odd presence in several ways. First, he seemed to take issue with the speech McAfee gave before the VP nominations, in which the ex-candidate took the LP to task for the overwhelming (and visually verifiable) white-maleness of its ranks, even to the point of saying, “Shame on you, and shame on me,” for allowing the outreach effort to become so ossified. Grayson, a physically striking, smartly-dressed black Georgian with preacherly cadence, instead drew attention to the few people of color at the convention, before pivoting to say that, “When I enter this building, I don’t see race, I see people who love liberty” — which is great rhetoric for the mid-’90s, perhaps, but not ultimately convincing in an assembly that is whiter than Maine.

What Weiss saw in the LP was a marketing problem: the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Grayson had some memorable lines, though, including that the idea of nominating someone like Weld for media coverage and then fixing principle, rather than nominating someone for principle and then seeking media coverage was “butt-backwards.” It was almost enough for some to forget that this exact thing had been tried multiple times throughout party history — or, on an entirely different track, to forget Grayson’s campaign as a Republican, including having his primary challenge to US Sen. Johnny Isakson shut down by the FEC for failing to file campaign finance reports. Not everyone forgot, though: there were calls from the floor demanding to see Grayson’s party membership receipt, dated and timed, to ensure that he was eligible to run; unfortunately, the vehemence of these calls came off less as principled and more as unhinged, Birther-level conspiracy-mongering (especially when accompanied by calls to see the same for Weld, who was verified as a Life member).

After this, things got odd. Alicia Dearn, a St. Louis attorney who had done work for LP ballot access and the 2012 Johnson campaign (the fees for which she had later written off), had nonetheless been one of the major hopes of the Never Weld campaigners; Austin Peterson endorsed her in his own concession, and wore her sticker on his lapel. While other contingents didn’t mobilize around her, they did agree on a strategy to use the first ballot to establish the strongest competitor to Weld, and the second to band together and bring him down. But Dearn herself wasn’t convinced of the plan. After speaking on the importance of party unity, she posed a question to Weld: will you swear not to “betray” the LP?

It became clear she expected Weld to actually come up to the podium, which she relinquished to him when he did so. Weld wanted clarification, understandably: we’d already seen the very different definitions of what people in this audience counted as “betrayal.” But he said that he would never (unlike the specter in the background, Bob Barr) return to the GOP. “Is that sufficient?” he asked. “Yes!” cried some in the crowd, who may already have been supporters. “No!” shouted others, who never would be, no matter what he said. Still, the net result was Weld getting three extra minutes to stump, and a seeming endorsement from Dearn — except then she pulled back from that edge; she declined to withdraw, encouraging everyone to “vote their own heart,” even though she did not know hers yet.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc to survive even the first ballot. The two were a study in contrast: the former Tea Partier Coley relatively well-known from his radio show and his work with Muslims for Liberty, a forceful speaker with experience crafting talks for the liberty-curious; Sharpe an outsider not known for much of anything (certainly not his day job, a sales training course about as culty as others of its ilk), but with a genuinely inspiring life story and a winning manner. This life story was the interminable focus of his nominating speech, which included no speeches for the first ten minutes while a video played detailing Sharpe’s family history, the challenges he’d overcome, his leadership in the Marines and in Ivy League teaching gigs, etc. It was all fine enough, but a lot to ask of a crowd many of whose members had brought beers back with them from lunch. Coley was more traditional: several speakers from the Radical Caucus spoke for him, underlining the need to “balance” the ticket as well as the candidate’s ability to challenge Trump and Clinton on their biases against Muslims; then Coley himself spoke, promising to “inspire and electrify” voters, even though this speech was perhaps his most subdued on record. Then Johnson made his plea for Weld, and the ballots were distributed.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc.

As ever, it takes a while to hand out and recollect ballots, especially from the larger delegations like California and Texas. This left quite some time for the mood of the room to turn rowdy, and a little ugly. In the normal course of voting, there are speeches, there are parliamentary points, there are supporters of various candidates walking the aisles with the signs of their chosen. But now was added loud chanting, especially by a small Never Weld group, often making it impossible to hear points from the podium or floor microphone. Now was also the confrontation between several of these — including radical candidate for party chair, James Weeks II — and Feldman, as he defended his Weld endorsement as a chance to speak to the negatives, as well as to demonstrate the virtues of compromise, of “learning to live with people you hate.” But nothing spilled over into physical confrontation; the worst I saw was a visibly drunk 20-something guy yelling at a woman of similar age holding a Weld sign: “You hate Ron Paul! Hey, she hates Ron Paul!” He withered under her glare and, finding no support among those around him, bumbled on.

The vote count didn’t make anybody any happier. Weld couldn’t take the first ballot, bringing an initial cheer from the Never Welders that lasted about as long as it took to see the tally: the ex-gov took 426 votes; 49% of the total and single digits away from what he needed. The only hope would be to swing everyone behind Sharpe, who had gotten 264 — not just the Coley and Grayson totals, but also Dearn’s, and the NOTAs, and maybe even the spoiled ballots and write-ins.

As lowest votegetter, Dearn was granted time to concede, but could not be found — she’d left the event, and would have to rush back. In the meantime Coley went ahead and dropped, endorsing Sharpe as per their pre-vote agreement, but also reminding the delegates of Weld’s role in the past helping to shoot down Libertarian legitimacy. Dearn arrived in the meantime, and noted that she hadn’t even voted for herself; she and her husband both abstained from the first ballot. Now she completed the endorsement of Weld she had considered before, and earned lusty boos from pockets of the crowd for her perfidy.

Only after the second-round ballots had been printed did Grayson decide to withdraw. He also endorsed Sharpe, claiming those going Weld were “Kool-Aid drinkers.” This particular pedant must intrude here to note that the Jonestown massacre-suicide was through Flavor-Aid, not its better-known competitor, and besides that casting a vote in an LP VP contest is some distance away from killing yourself and your family. But the comment got under some delegates’ skins for other reasons, with one even trying with some vehemence to object to the point from the floor mic.

When Weeks kicked off his shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed.

Counting continued. With time running low on weekend and the use of the ballroom, the body moved as usual to allow candidates for party chair to speak during the ballot count. This meant incumbent chair Nicholas Sarwark handing off the gavel to prepare for his own speech — a fateful move. Sarwark had drawn the admiration of every other reporter I spoke with that weekend, many marveling at his ability not just to keep things moving, but to do so with grace and good humor. (An example: during a lull, one delegate asked for a point of information, which granted, said: “Mr. Chairman, is taxation theft?” Without missing a beat, Sarwark: “Yes, taxation is theft,” before acknowledging the next speaker.)

With Sarwark off the podium, podium duty fell to former LP chairman Jim Lark, a distinguished, almost august figure in the Party, but one not at all prepared to marshal a rambunctious group riding emotional and, in some cases, chemical highs. Lark could not effectively quiet the chanters, or get the aisles cleared, but what he was about to face may have been beyond the ability of any parliamentary chair to wrangle.

The candidates for chair were four: Sarwark, Brett Pojunis (Nevada state chair), Mark Rutherford (former chair in Indiana), and James Weeks II (former congressional candidate and county chair in Michigan). The debate between the former three a few nights earlier had been one of the most civil and well-mannered I’ve ever seen, even if the trio all substantially agreed with one another on most things. When the 20-sided die was cast, it was newcomer Weeks who would speak first, followed by the other three.

Weeks came to the stage with a nearly empty pint glass, which he deposited at the podium. Then he signaled for music to play, and started clapping in time, getting the delegates to do the same. He even did a little dance — nothing too odd, just getting the audience moving and on his side. And that was when he started removing his clothes. When he kicked off the shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed. Shirt and pants followed, leaving only black bikini briefs between the audience and full knowledge of what Weeks had to offer. After a brief dance, during which a couple friends of his (one hopes) rushed on stage to tuck dollar bills into his waistband, Weeks said he was withdrawing from the race, and the whole thing was on a dare; then gathering his clothes, he withdrew.

During all of this, I was about five feet away, right in front of the podium, probably closer than any other person in the room, and I could not stop laughing. It’s an odd thing, knowing with absolute certainty that what you are seeing is about to blow up online — the C-SPAN cameras and the internet’s appetite for novelty would ensure that. What I didn’t expect was the outrage from so many delegates about what was obviously a little bit of surrealist theater — and even that more Monty Python than Monster Raving Loony Party. But one should never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Delegates queued up to denounce Weeks, competing with each other on how best to punish him; one even suggested permanent expulsion from the Party. Another joked that Weeks’ presentation of his zaftig form constituted a “violation of the non-aggression principle”; at least a couple of observers took him seriously. Lark couldn’t handle the commotion; it took Sarwark, speaking from the floor this time, to calm everyone and get them to move on. (What didn’t get mentioned much, even in his local press, was Weeks’ Iron Cross tattoo, increasingly used by white supremacist groups in the US and elsewhere — though as often used by metalheads, bikers, or provocateurs of various stripes; conclusions are difficult to draw.) A later proposal to officially denounce Weeks failed, and the assembly returned to its business; though the striptease was widely reported (and how could it fail to be?), somehow it did not end up defining the LP’s weekend.

Never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Instead the focus remained on the LP’s ticket, and after the aisles were cleared of the indignant, the results of the second ballot were announced. Though Sharpe picked up nearly all the votes in play, “nearly all” wasn’t enough; by gaining only 15 more votes, William Weld was confirmed as the Party’s VP nominee. In his concession, Sharpe noted his admiration for Gary Johnson, saying the 2012 campaign was what brought him to the LP to begin with. Judging by his performance over the weekend, it’s not the last we’ll see from Sharpe within Party politics.

What struck me most, following the VP election, was what didn’t happen. The radicals may not have been represented on the ticket, but unlike in 2008 there was no immediate call to splinter off from the Party, or to abandon it to its new Republican masters. Instead of a mass gathering in the exhibition hall outside the convention ballroom, there was instead a small, only slightly downcast postmortem in the Petersen hospitality suite, with the door open to the adjoining McAfee suite. The candidates congratulated their operatives for good work against steep odds, and encouraged them to push on for the sake of the Party.

There’s not much chance Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen will ever be friends, but the latter will work for the former and wait for his chance down the line. John McAfee, who had planned to walk out if Johnson was nominated, said, “Nothing was lost today — this is just the beginning.” While some of the radical caucusers I spoke with were unsure about whether or not they could cast a vote for Johnson-Weld, they nonetheless were eager to dive into local downballots and grassroot-growing. (In the days after the election, Will Coley seemed encouraged by Johnson, if still wary of him, following personal phone calls in which Johnson sought guidance on how best to speak about ISIS, Iran, and Middle East politics generally.) And, to judge from the results of the officer elections, with Sarwark and vice-chair Arvin Vohra reelected handily, the Party as a whole seems content with its present leadership.

In the days after the convention, the media coverage was impressive: not only because there was media coverage, but also because it was generally sympathetic, or at least without the overt misrepresentation, scorn, or dismissal standard to accounts of American third parties. Even my driver to the airport had heard of the convention, and — as a self-described entrepreneur trying to "build his personal brand" so he can provide for his family — he's a natural for the LP's message, if only they can convey it to him and the millions of others who just want to be left alone to work hard and live as well as they're able.

It's on that basis that Johnson made his plea, and it worked: the Weld gambit is underway. With both major parties and especially their nominees deeply unpopular, everything is set for the LP to achieve historic highs in the election to come. What remains to be seen, as ever, is if they can keep from screwing it up.



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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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