Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson is in the news again today for showing off his profound ignorance on national television. But the more important story is why anyone cares about him at all.
Johnson is polling at near-double digits nationally, the highest such showing ever at this point for a Libertarian Party candidate. Johnson’s numbers are also sharply up from his showing when he was the LP presidential candidate in 2012. In that race, he was in the neighborhood of two percent in September, but in the end got 0.99 percent of the vote – still the most votes for a Libertarian presidential candidate in that party’s history.
This year, he’;s doing far better, as you’d expect with such a controversial and flawed Republican nominee. But that’s not the only reason Johnson is receiving record support. A mid-September New York Times poll had Johnson getting the support of a staggering 26 percent of young voters – the same voting block that overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders in hi Democratic Party primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Rather than support Clinton now, many of them are turning to Johnson.
This is, in large part, a testimony to the weakness of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Like Johnson, Stein was also her party’s presidential nominee in 2012. Unlike Johnson, Stein is doing the same or a little worse this year than in September 2012 polling. Given Sanders’ record-breaking performance for an explicitly socialist candidate who shares many of Stein’s positions, this is an inexplicably bad showing on her part. But having that support shift to Johnson is even more inexplicable.
Gary Johnson is a fairly standard-issue Libertarian on policy stances (though appallingly ignorant on some issues – more on that in a moment). He has largely built his campaign on gun fetishism and on pot legalization. The latter stance (which Stein also supports) seems to be a big reason for his support for millennials. And Johnson, like many Libertarians, is also good on civil liberties and on scaling back American militarism.
But Johnson isn’t the type of Libertarian largely motivated by social issues – he’s cut from the (now dominant in LP politics) Ayn Rand-worshipping of the party that emphasizes corporate freedom to do whatever and shredding what’s left of America’s social safety net.
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum helpfully compiled a list recently of some of the Johnson policy stances that ought to be anathema to a Sanders supporter. Among them:
He supports TPP.
He supports fracking.
He opposes any federal policies that would make college more affordable or reduce student debt. In fact, he wants to abolish student loans entirely.
He thinks Citizens United is great.
He doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage. At all.
He favors a balanced-budget amendment and has previously suggested that he would slash federal spending 43 percent in order to balance the budget. This would require massive cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and social welfare programs of all kinds.
He opposes net neutrality.
He wants to increase the Social Security retirement age to 75 and he’s open to privatization.
He opposes any kind of national health care and wants to repeal Obamacare.
He opposes practically all forms of gun control.
He opposes any kind of paid maternity or medical leave.
He supported the Keystone XL pipeline.
He opposes any government action to address climate change.
He wants to cut the corporate tax rate to zero.
He appears to believe that we should reduce financial regulation. All we need to do is allow big banks to fail and everything will be OK.
He wants to remove the Fed’s mandate to maximize employment and has spoken favorably of returning to the gold standard.
He wants to block-grant Medicare and turn it over to the states.
He wants to repeal the 16th Amendment and eliminate the income tax, the payroll tax, and the estate tax. He would replace it with a 28 percent FairTax that exempts the poor. This is equivalent to a 39 percent sales tax, and it would almost certainly represent a large tax cut for the rich.
Johnson’s actual record as New Mexico was very much along this vein, especially on taxation: he issued more vetoes during his time as governor than the governors of all 49 other states combined, and they were mostly revenue and spending bills. He is not in any sense progressive, except where it happens to involve government interference in personal behavior.
As a presidential candidate, Johnson is running to make an ideological point, not to win. Neither of them makes a plausible Commander-in-Chief. (I’ll write more Stein’s anemic candidacy later.) But Stein, at least, does her homework; Johnson has shown repeatedly in interviews that once he’s separated from his favored issues and talking points, he’s lost.
That’s why today’s headlines, after an MSNBC town hall in which Johnson could not name a single foreign leader – nobody. Johnson himself referred o it as “another Aleppo moment,” referring to n MSNBC interview earlier this month when a question was asked about the devastation of Syria’s largest city. “What would you do about Aleppo?,” the host asked, andJohnson replied, “What is Aleppo?” (Or, alternatively: “What is a leppo?”) That’s the response of someone who not only flunked world geography, but isn’t even paying casual attention to the news – something of a prerequisite for a s presidential candidate, and another indication that Johnson simply isn’t a serious candidate – even though he’s now run for the office twice.
None of this should matter. Johnson’s support among millennials, and especially among Sanders supporters, wouldn’t be happening if Hillary Clinton were a stronger and more progressive candidate. It also wouldn’t be happening if Jill Stein were a stronger candidate or were running a better campaign. Either could name a dozen foreign leaders without hesitation. Both have detailed plans about what to do about Aleppo.
But it also wouldn’t be happening if anybody were actually paying attention to more than a few cherry-picked examples of Johnson’s beliefs. Because there’s bad, there’s awful, and there’s truly awful. Either Clinton or Stein, for all their flaws, would make a far better president than Gary Johnson.