Pulling Punches

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Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!

Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.

Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.

So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.

After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.

What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.

The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”

What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.

As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.

Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.

Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.

He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.

In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”

On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.

Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.

The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.



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Squabbles and Sorcerors

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As the official business of the 2012 Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention got underway, there was but one question on everyone’s mind: which group of people will be credentialed and seated as the official delegation from Oregon?

Actually, no, very few people cared about that, especially if you count out those with either a direct stake in the matter, or a fetish for obscurities of parliamentiary procedure. But the LP cannot do without drama, so lacking any at the top of the ballot it was left to the individual delegations to come up with some. Oregon came through in spades.

It’s never a good sign when there’s more than one “central committee” of anything, and Oregon brought two, the Reeves group and the Wagner group. The latter is the one recognized by the Oregon Secretary of State; the former is suing to contest this recognition. It’s of those thoroughly Byzantine LP procedural matters that simmers for months before exploding into floor debate that even Robert’s Rules is hard pressed to contain.

So once the proverbial gavel fell (only proverbial because the actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSA, no joke, would not permit it to be taken on a plane), things got ugly real quick. Between conflicts of interest, backroom (even bedroom) deals, and worst of all violations of parliamentary procedure, there were accusations aplenty. As one of the speakers, himself an involved party, noted when addressing the floor: there are “unclean hands on both sides of the dispute.”

Others settled for the fatal passive — “Mistakes have been made, things could have been handled better.” — before appealing to the LP’s “brand distinction” as the soc-called “party of principle.” “If we can’t follow our own rules,” one asked, “then how can we ask the American people for their votes?” Because of course the fight over who is seated as the Oregon delegation is going to be a campaign killer with the American people in the coming election cycle.

The actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSAwould not permit it to be taken on a plane

Hilariously low stakes aside, this dispute is not one that’s going away. The delegates’ decision to approve the credentials report and seat the Reeves faction, though pragmatically ending a fight that was already holding up the keynote address, leaves the status of the Oregon LP uncertain. Even party insiders cannot yet say which side will win out, or even whether the party’s nominee will be able to appear on the Oregon ballot. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth — as one Oregon delegate, new to the party and unknowingly swept up in this pissing match, said when addressing the floor: “It seems like the Libertarian Party is more concerned with preserving their own personal power than with promoting liberty in the United States.”

With that kerfuffle momentarily sorted, it was back to the same old, same old with Michael Cloud’s keynote speech. If there’s any libertarian idea you care particularly about, chances are he brought it up — but because he spent his time speaking to every possible issue, there was little focus on any single one of them. “Big government is the disease, and libertarians have the cure” is bumper-sticker stuff, practically defining boilerplate.

The list of the day’s speeches proved hardly more inspirational, showing, if nothing else, that the party is in urgent need of fresh blood. And to be fair, two of the speakers late in the day addressed that in particular: Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, which gathers college students to talk about liberty; and Andy McKean, founder of Liberty Day, a group that tries to raise constitutional literacy, especially in elementary schools. While neither speech exactly concealed its fundraising aim, it’s encouraging nonetheless to see a block of speech aimed at reaching a generation that, by my own admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re doing none too well with to date.

All of this, though, is a sideshow to the real business of the convention: nominating a presidential candidate. But unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march: Gary Johnson announced his intent early and entered the convention as overwhelming favorite to take the nomination; the only real drama in the process by now is whether the vote will go to a second ballot.

But there are other candidates: enough of them, in fact, that the LP itself isn’t actually sure how many of those who have filed to run for president will actually bother to show up and do so. But what is clear is that the field is nowhere near as packed as in 2008, where nine candidates made the debate stage. Reaching that point requires 30 delegate “tokens” (actually slips of paper); but it’s uncertain whether anyone other than Johnson and Wrights will reach even that total.

So why even bother? I asked Jim Libertarian Burns, a perennial candidate (and yes, that is his legal middle name). For him, it’s about making contacts — even friends — and getting the message out that the Libertarian Party is the best hope that the American people (and by proxy people worldwide) have for true political change. At the same time, the LP as presently constructed is “a pile of crap.” Burns has the hope of at least making the debate stage, which — if it did happen — would be far more as a reward to him for decades within the party, than for any particular strength of his campaign. But rest assured: if by some fluke he were to take the party nomination, he would not accept it, but would instead turn it over to Gary Johnson.

Unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march.

The same would certainly not be true of Lee Wrights, Johnson’s main competitor. Another longtime presence in the LP, Wrights has held a number of roles in past years, including vice chair; without Johnson around, Wrights’ campaign would be something like Andre Marrou’s: essentially, a lifetime service award, and one for which Wrights’ slogan “End All War” (e.g., foreign, Drug, On Poverty) would be adequate

With Johnson, however, Wrights has to focus much more on the issues where he and the ex-governor differ — difficult since they’re both anti-war, anti-drug prohibition, anti-entitlements, etc. So what does he have to offer? First and foremost, many more years of experience in libertarian politics, specifically — indisputable since Johnson just joined six months ago, albeit as a life member. Second, an economic plan that isn’t the Flat Tax. Third, a foreign policy farther in the direction of isolationism than Johnson’s non-interventionism. What would a Wrights campaign look like? A grassroots affair, reaching out to local libertarian candidates in a bid to make use of preestablished media relationships — relationships I’m not sure actually exist, or at least haven’t proven terrifically useful in the past. But the talking points are in place for the debate, and Wrights will at least be on the stage with a chance to make them.

But at this point it would take getting caught in flagrante delicto with half a dozen hookers, several farmyard animals, and a choir of castrati for Gary Johnson to lose the nomination. And while some of the above might be on the menu for other libertarian operatives once they get over to the Strip, there’s precious little vice (other than the obvious one) at the resort itself, even in the room parties that fill the convention’s nighttime hours.

The peculiar pleasure to be found in these hospitality suites is instead that of truly bizarre conversation — something like a perpetual Philip K. Dick story, where one comes to realize, again and again, that there is no firm ground to stand on, no intersection between a particular person’s mind and whatever passes for objective reality in the world around us. For instance, last night I spoke with a younger attendee who was absolutely convinced that the greatest problem facing American politics — nay, politics worldwide — was the workings of sorcerers wielding unimaginable arcane power. He supported a blanket ban on all sorcery, speaking approvingly of nations where such laws were already on the books, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. More specifically, any presidential candidate worth his salt must be willing to take on the leading nest of sorcerers in America, Yale’s Skull & Bones society, which has been responsible for many assassinations over the past half-century or so, most recently Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

After a few drinks and a swing across the dancefloor at Gary Johnson’s bumping election party (LMFAO soundtrack included), I called it a night. Tomorrow: candidates court delegate tokens and try to get on the stage for the C-SPAN televised debate. More anon.



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Liberty Does the LNC!

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Starting Wednesday, May 2, Liberty will be covering the Libertarian National Convention live from the floor of the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

Can Gary Johnson take the nomination, or will the LP throw up another Badnarikian curveball? Who will emerge as VP? What clearly insane person will claim his or her 15 minutes of fame?

Join us here for daily (or sooner) reports on happenings at the LNC, and follow us on Twitter at @libertyunbound for up-to-the-minute bulletins on the stories and myriad oddities of this premier gathering of libertarian luminaries.



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