It feels in 2016 that anything can happen, election-wise. The GOP is splitting and spitting mad over the staggering success of a political amateur. Hillary Clinton is either almost there, or she’s going to crash and burn under the weight of the Bern and an email indictment.
None of this means the Libertarian Party can get anywhere. When having a televised debate at all is a victory, when 5 percent of the vote, and mostly likely handing the election to Clinton would be an unprecedented success, it’s hard to know how optimistic to feel about the little third party that can’t but still won’t ever give up.
Formed in a living room in 1971, the Libertarian Party has forever struggled for any kind of relevancy on the national stage. The party was bafflingly early in its support of gay rights and marriage equality. Considering the familiar joke/accusation about libertarians being Republicans who just want to smoke pot, you’re damn right they’ve been good on the war on drugs for years as well.
They just don’t have much to show for being cutting edge. Historical blips in 1980 and 2012 were historic only in the sense that candidates Ed Clark–with David “Koch Brothers” Koch as VP!–and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson respectively actually got about a million votes, or 1 percent of the turnout in the latter year. Though libertarian-friendly Republican congressmen Thomas Massie and Justin Amash currently reside in D.C., and Sen. Rand Paul is fighting for reelection, the LP itself has never even won national office. It hasn’t grabbed a state congressional seat since 1998.
Third party candidates have to fight like mad to get around draconian ballot access restrictions. And forget access to the debates. You have to poll at 15 percent to be considered.
And though the LP’s choices for president of late range from the square white men (former nasty Republican Bob Barr in 2008) to the supposed-crackpot white men (constitutional lawyer Michael Badnarik in 2004), it’s not all their fault. It’s a cold, true fact that the Democrats and the Republicans have a serial-killer-tight hold on the democratic process in America. Third party candidates have to fight like mad to get around draconian ballot access restrictions. And forget access to the debates. You have to poll at 15 percent to be considered. As Johnson sagely asks–and sues over–how are you supposed to reach 15 percent if they won’t let you debate?
Johnson did start out as one of the GOP contender pack in 2012, but he sensibly moved over to the LP side when he couldn’t even compete with then-Rep. Ron Paul as the truth-telling protest candidate. Johnson, 63, is pro-choice, pro-pot, and if not purely anti-war, he’s an improvement over any of the possible candidates for 2016.
The Fox Business News debate, pre-recorded and held in a conspicuously small studio, also included Austin Petersen, 35, a maker of various libertarian websites, and John McAfee, 70, who was once most famous for his eponymous virus scan software. Now he’s more likely to be remembered as the intense-eyed fellow who was briefly a fugitive from Belizean justice in 2012 because he was “a person of interest” in the death of his neighbor. In surreal fashion, moderator John Stossel asked each candidate about a shameful personal incident. Johnson was asked to defend his pot use and did so. Petersen was asked about his age, since he’s only just old enough to be president. And McAfee was asked about that whole murder thing.
For his part, McAfee said he was innocent but scared of law enforcement who had previously killed his dog. The man has a long, strange, paranoid history. However, he had some oddly insightful answers at the debate. Plus, he can be honest. McAfee owned up to a 2015 arrest for driving on Xanax as a mistake. All of this real talk so moved Johnson to walk over and smooch McAfee on the cheek. Nobody is doing that in the major parties.
This was mostly the mood of the debate–jovial. Each candidate had a tax plan, and McAfee was the least fiscally conservative. Stossel asked about gay marriage, ISIS, immigrants and abortion, and other currently volleyballed issues such as the right to refuse to bake a cake for a customer (Petersen and McAfee were for baker right of refusal and Johnson was against). Petersen was the only pro-life candidate. McAfee and Johnson offered unqualified support for it being the woman’s choice. All supported marriage equality, and all offered a note of caution about foreign interventions. McAfee went downright “war, what is it good for?” in his first answer on the issue.
Nobody on this stage is going to be president. One man, however, has the potential power to be a spoiler, and that man is likely going to be Johnson.
But let’s be real. Nobody on this stage is going to be president. One man, however, has the potential power to be a spoiler, and that man is likely going to be Johnson. Johnson gave the LP its best showing in decades in 2012. He has no social conservative baggage to scare off liberals and the fiscal muscle to welcome conservatives (he certainly likes trade better than Trump does). In a Hillary and Trump-plagued America, might not a few people wash their hands of the whole two-party thing?
Johnson has been saying he could change the election’s outcome for months now. A few people agree with him.
Johnson’s fiscal conservative leanings may not vibe with Bernie fans who dream of free college. Not to mention, isn’t he, as Stossel asked, an overly low-key pot-head who failed miserably last election? Pretty much. But success in libertarian terms is highly relative.
Johnson could be Ralph Nader in 2000, comes the refrain. But frustratingly, the field may still be too crowded for the Libertarians. Trump may at heart be the third party success story that bored, apathetic voters have been waiting for. He just happens to be using the Republican Party as a host for that parasitic campaign.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders remains the candidate of principle, who inspires passionate supporters. Johnson is Johnson, and though he climbed Mt. Everest, and he’s a marijuana company CEO, he is desperately regular in his manner. He does not come off as someone who can lead a revolution, even of the quixotic Ron Paul type. All he can hope for is to shift the final election numbers a little bit, and that may be something he can do. Who the hell can even pretend to predict how this thing will go now?
CORRECTION: McAfee was arrested for driving on Xanax, not for being under the influence of alcohol.