Commentary Magazine


Did the GOP Really Leave Gary Johnson?

When libertarians (and Libertarians) object that despite the popularity of some of their causes they are not taken seriously as a voting constituency by the two major American parties, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. Republicans and Democrats seem to hate the TSA’s invasive and pervasive screening process; opposition to the drug war is growing in both camps; and the popularity of gay marriage on the left and opposition to Obamacare on the right would seem to remind voters on both sides of the political divides of their libertarian streaks.

Yet they are unloved. Instead of finding the Koch brothers convenient allies given their social libertarianism and dedication to funding the arts, the left has turned the Kochs into the villains of the election cycle, offering some of the most ignorant and self-defeating politics of personal destruction in years. And now Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, claims to be shut out by the GOP and feels that his voice has been trampled by Republicans who fear he could cut into Mitt Romney’s vote share in several key states. The New York Times reports:

Both sides agree that Mr. Johnson, whose pro-marijuana legalization and antiwar stances may appeal to the youth vote and whose antigovernment, anti-spending proposals may appeal to conservative fiscal hawks — and to supporters of Mr. Paul — has the potential to draw from both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama….

The Republican efforts to impede Mr. Johnson’s candidacy have drawn charges of spying and coercion from Libertarians and countercharges from Republicans that the party had resorted to fraud while accepting secret help from Democrats.

That suggests that both sides think Johnson would hurt Romney more than Obama. Yet on the domestic front, Obama has given libertarians nothing but Obamacare-style policy and Solyndra-style crony capitalism, and on foreign affairs he has expanded virtually everything libertarians claimed to hate about George W. Bush’s national security policies. So why would Johnson cut into Romney’s vote instead of Obama’s? On paper it wouldn’t seem to make sense, until you consider the fact that Johnson actually branded himself, throughout his political career, as a Republican.

In an interview last month with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnson–who served as governor of New Mexico as a Republican–was asked why he left the GOP after running for president initially as a Republican. He said he was able to participate in two primary debates before the party abandoned and excluded him. He continued:

We requested of the RNC (Republican National Committee) that they step in and demand they give us a seat at the table; otherwise, the Republican Party is being dictated to by the media. The party would have nothing to do with helping me out. That was the Republican Party leaving me, not me leaving the Republican Party.

I’m sure there’s a case to be made that more than the dozen candidates invited to the debates was warranted, but is it really the Republican Party’s job to be “helping [Johnson] out”? It was no surprise that Johnson was going to run as a Libertarian candidate if he couldn’t gain traction in the GOP primaries. But there’s another Republican who is also a libertarian, but never dropped the party: Ron Paul. Paul didn’t need the GOP to be “helping [him] out”–he put in his time, over many years, as an elected Republican official, built a following, and leveraged that following into a movement that made itself heard in the party and kept Paul in the GOP primary debates through the new year and right to the end of the debate season.

Paul made a couple of strong showings in some states–mostly in caucus and open-primary states where ground game mattered and Democrats were permitted to vote in the GOP contests–and in February he joined Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in the final four candidates’ debates. Paul was the only one on stage that remotely resembled a libertarian, and it seemed he had national appeal as well. One poll conducted by CNN in January found Paul keeping pace with Obama in a head-to-head race.

Of course, Paul had his drawbacks, notably the racist newsletters published in his name and from which he seemed to profit for many years, 9/11 truthers, and his ability to attract crackpots and Jew-baiters like moths to a flame. This earned him a weirdly crossover appeal, as his approval rating among Democrats shot up after the revelations of the racist newsletters, and his attitude toward Israel always attracted leftists and Occupy Wall Street types fretting about “Jewish bankers.”

All of this is to say that Johnson has much less baggage than Paul, but also much less of a following. That’s not really the GOP’s fault–a more libertarian candidate than Johnson was able to thrive in the GOP, and Ron Paul’s son, Rand, has quite a following as well. While the Tea Party isn’t strictly libertarian, it was an indication that libertarian distrust of big government still has a home in the GOP. Johnson’s political success has come as a Republican. He’s free to run as a Libertarian, but in doing so, he very publicly and unequivocally is leaving the GOP—the party that facilitated his political career—not the other way around.

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