This should be a great moment for libertarians, the GOP’s quirky little cousin. After all, the Republican Party went off the rails and nominated a protectionist demagogue who can’t stay out of trouble. Only a handful of Republicans are likely to defect and vote for Hillary Clinton. So many conservatives are looking for alternatives.
You may have heard of these lost souls in the last few months, huddled together under the #NeverTrump umbrella. At first they wanted Mitt Romney to run as the true conservative, but that didn’t go anywhere. A few hoped freshman senator Ben Sasse would take up the cause. That didn’t go anywhere, either. Now the Never Trumpers are supporting a senior House staffer to carry their banner in November. This campaign is being waged after they tried and failed to enlist David French, a National Review writer and reservist military officer.
So what about the two former Republican governors, Gary Johnson and William Weld, nominated by a party that espouses limited government and fiscal responsibility? Why can’t the Never Trumpers go Libertarian?
There are a few reasons. To start, there are policy clashes with mainstream Republicans. Johnson and Weld, like most libertarians, are libertine. They support abortion rights and marriage equality. Many Never Trumpers don’t. On an issue that matters a lot to social conservatives, the right of private businesses to not participate in same-sex weddings, Johnson sounds like the Obama administration.
He later had to clarify remarks he made to the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney that equated a baker who didn’t want to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple to murderers who claimed to be inspired by religion. French told me Johnson’s remarks about Mormons and gay wedding cakes were “the kind of rant you would hear from a college professor who has never met an evangelical.”
Then there is the Libertarian Party, which takes liberty to a literal extreme. During its convention in May, one nominee for the party’s chairmanship, James Weeks, stripped down to a thong as he addressed those assembled. The National Review’s Ian Tuttle described it as the “political equivalent of the Cantina scene from Star Wars.” So even though more and more Americans today are coming around to the libertarian view on drugs and the size of government, the party still acts like a fringy nerd fest.
But for my money, the main reason so many conservatives are not giving the Libertarians a second look comes down to the candidate himself. On paper, Johnson looks great. He’s an extreme athlete, who has scaled Everest. He has positioned himself as the ultimate outsider in a year of the outsider. He is also humble, going out of his way to deride other politicians who promise the moon and never deliver and saying he would share presidential responsibilities with Weld, his running mate.
Then you watch him on television. It’s a disaster. Johnson is about as telegenic as an educational film about the metric system. He is a gangly ball of nerves who exudes the charisma of Don Knotts from his “Three’s Company” years. He smiles when he shouldn’t. When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, he offered a word salad of honest introspection, ending with: “For me personally, slap, slap wake up.”
For some libertarians, this lack of smoothness is part of his charm. Nick Gillespie, the editor of the movement’s premier journal, Reason.com, told me, “His lack of charisma, his disinterest or inability to take over every room he enters, should be extremely comforting and appealing to a country filled with responsible adult citizens.” Gillespie added that Johnson won’t push Americans around “like cattle or sheep” but rather will competently execute the functions of government, “exhorting us to pursue happiness in all the different ways we define that term.”
Perhaps this is the best reason to vote for him. As Gillespie said, Americans don’t need an “inspirer-in-chief.”
But they are voting for a commander-in-chief. And the former governor of New Mexico doesn’t come off like a commander, a chief or a president of any kind. He comes off like the NASA scientist in the movie who briefs the president right before the meteor hits.
Here’s the thing about that scientist. Everyone is happy that he is finally warning someone in power about the pending disaster. But he is still asked to leave the room when the president must decide what to do about it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake writes about politics and foreign affairs.