Gary Johnson, Bill Weld, and the ‘Libertarian Party’

With two former Republican governors running under its banner, is there such a thing as a "Libertarian Party"?

johnson-weld

The Libertarian Party nominated former Republican governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld as its 2016 ticket. As Doug Mataconis observed,

Johnson’s nomination comes as the Libertarian Party experiences a period of greater notoriety than it has ever had in the past. To a large degree, of course, this is due to the dissatisfaction that voters in both parties have expressed via polling and other methods with the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties, both of whom enter the General Election season with historically high disapproval numbers and polls saying that the public quite simply does not trust them. On the Republican side in particular, there remains a sizable number of people who continue to say that they would not support Donald Trump under any circumstances, and speculation has run high as to whether or not these voters could be persuaded to support a third party candidate. The fact that both Johnson and his presumptive running mate are former Republican Governors should not be discounted in this respect and, indeed, Johnson has made no secret of his intention of seeking to attract disaffected Republicans, and Democrats, in an effort to increase the level of support for the party sufficiently to justify an invitation to the Presidential debates in the fall. Whether that strategy will succeed remains to be seen, but it’s one that the delegates seemed to eventually support notwithstanding the purism that causes the LP to choose the path to irrelevance far too often.

In urging the delegates to choose Weld, Johnson argued that it’s by far the Party’s strongest bid to get on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton.  That’s a long shot, of course, but Ross Perot did manage it in 1992. Getting invited requires achieving a 15 percent threshold in the national polls, an absurdly high barrier for a third party candidate.  Johnson doesn’t have Perot’s charisma. But he does have far and away the most disliked candidates ever nominated by the major parties, at least in the modern era.

There’s next to zero chance that Johnson will be the 45th President of the United States. Even if Clinton were to be indicted following the FBI’s investigation into the email scandal (and I don’t think she will be) and people finally get outraged when Trump says something outrageous (more likely, but outrage at the system is so high that I don’t think it’ll happen) I simply can’t see a path to 270 Electoral votes. Nor would a House of Representatives consisting of nothing but Democrats and Republicans elect a Libertarian.

In the comments to Doug’s post, James Pearce contends,

Gary Johnson won’t be running for president.

He’ll be running a PR campaign to increase awareness of the LP so that someday they could (hopefully maybe) be a viable alternative to either of the dominant parties. As it is, the LP is little more than a refuge for former Republican heretics.

Stonetools follows up, predicting,

I think that some disaffected Republicans will take a look, then find out that libertarians want the Civil Rights Act repealed, think Social Security should be abolished and apparently believe that interstate highways “just happen”. Then these Republicans will drift right back out again, thinking “Trump might be nuts, but these guys…”

The problem with all that is that there’s no such thing as the Libertarian Party.  To a certain extent, that’s true of the Democrats and Republicans, too. Today’s Democratic Party has very little in common with the party of Andrew Jackson; it’s not all that recognizable as the party of Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis. And, as we’ve noted hundreds of times over the years here, today’s Republican Party isn’t the party of Ronald Reagan, much less the party of Abraham Lincoln.

In modern American politics, the presidential ticket defines the party. The recent kerfuffle over Bernie Sanders’ attempts to hijack the Democratic Platform is at the end of the day meaningless. If, as strikes me likely at this juncture, Hillary Clinton is elected president, she’ll govern based on her judgment as to what’s most advantageous to her politically and within the constraints of what can get through the Congress or she can get away with in terms of executive orders.  A President Trump would do the same thing. Ditto the extremely implausible President Gary Johnson.

Indeed, moreso than Trump or Clinton, a President Johnson would be totally unconstrained by not only the Libertarian Platform but the party itself. Trump and Clinton have both alienated their party’s Establishment and there will be a sizable contingent of Members of Congress—particularly US Senators looking for a promotion—who will take them on if they don’t tow the party line. Johnson would have an even more difficult time governing, given that Democrats and Republicans alike would surely work to ensure that he’s not re-elected. But, because there would be at most a tiny handful of Libertarians in the Congress, he would be free to govern as he saw fit.

Furthermore, Johnson and Weld have been Republicans throughout their political careers. The got elected governor of New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively, as Republicans.  Yes, Weld held the Libertarian nomination when he sought to get elected governor of New York; but he vied and failed to get the Republican nomination as well. They’re both small-l libertarians who have taken refuge in the Libertarian Party as a platform to advance their own agendas; they’re not True Believers on a Quixotic bid to advance the LP brand.  I guarantee they won’t be running on the abolition of Social Security and interstate highways.

Indeed, were Johnson and Weld to somehow catch fire, they would almost certainly mount a bid to join forces with the Republicans. In the short term, that would mean appealing to long-time Republican voters like myself who can’t countenance Trump or stomach voting for Clinton. In the longer term—including in a fantasy world where they were somehow elected—they would surely seek to align themselves with the GOP as a governing strategy and then seek both the Republican and Libertarian nominations in 2020.

The far, far more likely scenario, of course, is that Johnson and Weld are this cycle’s version of Ralph Nader in 2000, drawing almost all of their votes from people who would ordinarily vote for members of one party, in this case the Republicans. Unlike in 2000, though, few who pull the lever for them will be angry that their second choice didn’t become president.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Politics 101, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Facebones says:

    Trump and Clinton have both alienated their party’s Establishment

    Okay, I know you’ve been in full on Clinton bashing mode since 1991, but Clinton has “alienated the establishment?” Really? Isn’t Bernie’s entire campaign based on Hillary being an establishment shill? You guys gotta get your stories straight.




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  2. Davebo says:

    No matter what else happens we know that there will be more elected Republicans on the libertarian ticket than on the Republican ticket this year .

    Just more evidence that libertarians are really just Republicans who are ashamed to admit it.




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  3. bob says:

    OP, thanks. For info on the world Libertarians and fans: see http://www.libertarianinternational.org




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  4. James Pearce says:

    They’re both small-l libertarians who have taken refuge in the Libertarian Party as a platform to advance their own agendas; they’re not True Believers on a Quixotic bid to advance the LP brand.

    Oh, I don’t think Gary Johnson is a true blue Randian by any means. He was, from what I can tell, a fairly decent Republican, up to and even after hitching his wagon to the LP’s star.

    It’s a symbiotic relationship, theirs. Johnson gets Republican votes he couldn’t have gotten within the Republican party, and the LP gets the credibility of having (Republican) former governors at the top of the ticket.

    But as someone said of Hillary Clinton back in 08, “Why would you want a fake Republican when you could have the real thing?” Maybe Donald Trump provides sufficient answer?




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  5. Hal_10000 says:

    I think that some disaffected Republicans will take a look, then find out that libertarians want the Civil Rights Act repealed, think Social Security should be abolished and apparently believe that interstate highways “just happen”. Then these Republicans will drift right back out again, thinking “Trump might be nuts, but these guys…”

    Well, except that most people don’t have a glib cartoon version of the LP in their head. They’ll look at Johnson’s actual positions, which has none of that.




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  6. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Hal_10000: I think that’s the point–Johnson isn’t actually a Libertarian, he’s simply not popular enough to run with the big dogs.




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  7. steve s says:

    @Facebones:

    Okay, I know you’ve been in full on Clinton bashing mode since 1991, but Clinton has “alienated the establishment?” Really? Isn’t Bernie’s entire campaign based on Hillary being an establishment shill? You guys gotta get your stories straight.

    A week ago James was asserting that for his terrible heinous crimes, Bill Clinton totally deserved to be impeached by Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, now he’s saying this?

    James’s anti-Clinton thing has gone totally mental and weird.




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  8. @James:

    The problem with all that is that there’s no such thing as the Libertarian Party. To a certain extent, that’s true of the Democrats and Republicans, too.

    Sure there is. It is just that US parties are weak and non-hierarchical. And, moreover, parties in general are just groups of individuals who unite under a label to pursue votes. This is why I have long-argued “RINO, DINO, etc.” are nonsense terms in the sense that all parties are are the labels.

    (I recognize that we are actually agreeing more than disagreeing, but rather than say the parties don’t exist, per se, I think it is better to underscore what they actually are.)




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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @steve s:

    He’s trying to find cover for the fact that he’s been supporting a party which is now outed as a white supremacist, misogynist party. When it turns out your side is wrong, wrong, wrong, you naturally want to soften the blow.

    The problem goes much deeper. The reigning political ideologies are all falling apart.

    The LP was never anything but a party for Ayn Rand-worshipping, Asperger-y neckbeards who didn’t want to pay taxes and don’t mind people starving.

    The so-called conservatives ran out of ideas when Reagan’s tax cuts failed to pay for themselves, and Bush-Cheney proved incapable of nation-building. They are now busy thinking, “Maybe Mussolini wasn’t such a bad guy.”

    And the liberals are now down to their last possible constituency needing to be liberated, so half the party (Sanders voters) is off thinking, “Hey, maybe Communism isn’t so bad.”

    All our current ideologies are relics, as evidenced by the resurgence of fascism and socialism. We are out of ideas, we don’t have a direction, the center is not holding.




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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Facebones: @steve s: I phrased that poorly. Trump is hated by the Establishment wing of his party, whereas Clinton *IS* the Establishment wing of hers. But there has been a very strong anti-Clinton contingent among the base, both in 2008 and this go-round.

    @Steven L. Taylor: Fair enough. But the LP is even weaker than the Big 2. Trump wouldn’t necessarily be the ruin of the GOP, except that he’s the culmination of a trend rather than an outlier. But, if Johnson-Weld somehow did extraordinarily well this cycle, it wouldn’t necessarily do anything for the LP as we think of it. They would, in essence, *be* the LP.

    @michael reynolds: The Republican Party, to the extent it can be said to exist as a real thing, is much bigger than rabid Trump supporters. Clearly, it seems to have coalesced the racists and misogynists, although there are certainly a lot of those voting Democratic. There’s something more visceral than that happening, though. Trump is the much uglier side of Occupy Wall Street and Feel the Bern.




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  11. An Interested Party says:

    …the center is not holding.

    That is no doubt aided by the collapse of the middle class and neither major party seems to have a clue as to how to stop that…




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  12. Hal_10000 says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, if Johnson-Weld somehow did extraordinarily well this cycle, it wouldn’t necessarily do anything for the LP as we think of it. They would, in essence, *be* the LP.

    Which, I think, is a good thing. We need a viable third party, if nothing else to keep the big two honest. The circus act that is the current LP can not be it. But a more sensible LP built around the likes of Johnson could be.




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  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Hal_10000:

    But a more sensible LP

    This was going to be snark, but I thought better of it. So a serious question — in what sense is “a sensible (L/l)ibertarian party” possible, without being a replacement for (as opposed to an alternative to) the Republican party? As best I can tell, all of the libertarian positions that are not outright lunacy are already part of the official GOP platform (Trump aside).




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  14. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    James, there’s a central, defining difference between the Sanders people (who annoy the hell out of me) and the Trump people, who sicken me: Sanders’ people are punching up; Trump’s people are punching down. One side targets banks and billionaires, the other side attacks racial and religious minorities.

    That’s not a difference of degree, that’s a difference in kind.

    Two high school kids. One disrupts class and constantly challenges and criticizes teacher. The other finds the Downs kid and beats them up. Very different creatures.




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  15. Kari Q says:

    @Davebo:

    True. In my experience, “Libertarian” always means “embarrassed Republican.”

    @Hal_10000:

    At this point, we need a viable second party. Most states seem to be one party states, either all Democrat or all Republican.




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  16. @James Joyner:

    But, if Johnson-Weld somehow did extraordinarily well this cycle, it wouldn’t necessarily do anything for the LP as we think of it. They would, in essence, *be* the LP.

    Well, if (which seems unlikely) this ticket poll at 15% they will be in the debates, which will help raise the profile of the party, for good or ill (and like with the Reform Party would likely have some follow-on effects for a while).

    If they win 5% of the popular vote in November that has campaign finance implications (which the LP would probably refuse).

    Sufficient success in November could also open up ballot access, depending on state laws.

    Will any of this make the LP a major party? No. Would any of it be significant? Yes.




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  17. Jc says:

    Can we have some Green Party posts as well, so we can say we covered both sides of the meaningless other tickets?




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  18. James Joyner says:

    @Jc: The Green Party typically isn’t relevant. It was when Ralph Nader was their nominee and we had a very close election. The LP has never been relevant in presidential elections. But, with two credible former governors on the ticket and in a year when both major party nominees are historically unpopular, they could legitimately siphon off a significant number of votes.




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  19. Jc says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, with two credible former governors on the ticket and in a year when both major party nominees are historically unpopular, they could legitimately siphon off a significant number of votes.

    I mean, just because they will get your vote and Doug’s does not signify any major movement. With that argument then the Green Party should get a bunch of votes to from those unhappy with HRC. Just saying, its kind of a reach to be considering the LP relevant – Guess we shall see.




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  20. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: If they win 5% of the popular vote in November that has campaign finance implications (which the LP would probably refuse).

    It would not. Johnson already said that he wants 5% of the vote precisely because of that.




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  21. @Andre Kenji: Thanks for the correction.




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  22. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Joyner: Nader roughly tripled the result for the Greens, to 2.7% of the vote and it was enough (?) to flip the election to the GOP side (I don’t happen to be a “the SCOTUS stole the election for Bush” guy, but also have no dog in the fight). In this case, the significance would be blunted IMO because most of the lost votes would be likely to have gone to Trump (the underdog anyway, at this point). I’m not sure what other significance there would be for Libertarians of either size “L” variety, but I can’t see the party doing 5 times better than their best result either.




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  23. Todd says:

    It seems to the me that for disaffected “moderate” Republicans, Johnson/Weld seems like a much more likely alternative to Trump than voting for Hillary Clinton. I’m also not so sure that some anti-Clinton left leaning voters don’t end up there too. Libertarian’s economic ideas are mostly nuts (IMO), but on just about any other subject, there’s no reason that they (especially two non “fire breathers” like Johnson/Weld) shouldn’t look appealing to those on the left. In fact on most social and especially foreign policy issues, I find Johnson very much preferable to Hillary Clinton.




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  24. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Oh, I fully agree. I probably agree with Trump on more policy issues than I do Sanders but I would easily vote for Sanders over Trump. I think Trump is capitalizing on people’s frustrations in a much more malevolent way. I just see them as two candidates who would be marginalized in an ordinary presidential race who have tapped into a populist frustration with The System that is bigger than it’s been in my lifetime.

    @Jc: But that’s my point. Whatever happens with a Johnson-Weld ticket in a bizarre year doesn’t necessarily advance the LP as LP. As Steven Taylor notes upthread, it helps them institutionally if they hit certain thresholds. But it doesn’t spread libertarianism per se.

    @Todd: I think that’s right. I don’t think it’s more than maybe 10-15% of the electorate and maybe not that much. Regardless, it’s not because the banner of libertarianism is suddenly looking better but because the LP has picked appealing candidates and the major parties haven’t.




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  25. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I probably agree with Trump on more policy issues than I do Sanders

    This makes me so sad.

    Not that you would agree with Trump (which is sad enough), but that you even think you know what Trump’s policy positions are.

    If you can’t spot the mark at the table, it’s you.




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