Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, reluctantly endorsed presumptive GOP Presidential nominee Donald Trump, averring that the race between Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a “binary choice.” This is the mentality the Libertarian Party faces in presidential election cycles. Although the party has the political dexterity to get its Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees on the ballot in all or almost all fifty states and the District of Columbia, many voters either are not cognizant that the party has a nominee on the ballot, or immediately eliminate the candidate from consideration, believing that a vote for a non-major party nominee is a wasted vote.
The Democratic-Republican duopoly employs rhetorical brainwashing to maintain their electoral hegemony by using the hypnotic technique of “repetition,” continuing to repeat the message that a vote for a third party is a wasted vote, inculcating this notion in the minds of American voters until the vox populi eschew their conscience and select a nominee from one of the two major parties.
The Libertarian Party has been in an electoral steady-state in the Presidential sphere since it began nominating candidates in 1972. Only twice, in 1980 and in 2012, did the party garner at or near 1% of the national popular vote. Their Presidential nominees have often been non-politicians who appear to be in the race to wave the party’s flag rather than to be serious contenders. In addition, the candidates have sometimes been doctrinaire Libertarian ideologues who view any attempt to mainstream their message as apostasy.
This year, the applecart could be upset. The frontrunner for the nomination is former Republican New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Former Republican Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld has agreed to run as Johnson’s Vice Presidential runningmate. Both candidates are serious political players with redoubtable experience as Chief Executives. This is coupled with a political climate where neither of the likely nominees from the two major parties are favored by a majority of voters.
The Libertarian Party preaches a mantra of “Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom.” The party is generally thought of as a non-interventionist party. Libertarian devotees support limited government intervention in the economy, limited involvement in the affairs of other nations, and limited intervention in personal behavior. The Libertarian Party is often ideologically identified as the fiscally conservative, socially liberal party.
Though the party barely registers in the polls, a recent Gallop survey revealed that 27% of the American electorate are ideologically Libertarians. This finding illustrates that the party should work to consolidate the voters who actually support the candidate closest to their values.
Part of the reason why so many American voters identify as Libertarians but do not vote for the Libertarian Party nominee might be that voters who know of the party’s existence are more moderate Libertarians. While they support the idea of limited government, they would not eradicate the Social Safety Net. They might agree that the U.S. should stay out of foreign entanglements, but would not egress from all international organizations. They may support abortion rights, but favor restrictions on late-term abortions. In addition, voters could be turned off by Libertarian nominees who preach the Libertarian gospel but who have never actually run anything substantial.
Both Johnson and Weld are moderate Libertarians with both electoral and executive prowess. While Johnson is a more libertarian than Weld, neither is a rigid Libertarian ideologue. Both were elected twice as Governor with support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Johnson was elected in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1. Weld was elected in a state where GOP registration was only about 13%. Johnson was first elected in 1994, defeating three-term incumbent Democratic Governor Bruce King.
Johnson won the New Mexico Governorship not by proposing a radical reconstruction of the role of government but by bringing a “commonsense approach” and applying business principles to state government. He amalgamated traditional center-right conservatism. Johnson reduced the growth of the state budget, cut taxes, and advocated a school voucher program. Johnson entered the national political stage in 1999 by becoming the highest elected official to explicitly call for the legalization of marijuana, an issue which now strikes a resonate chord with the electorate.
Weld, a former U.S. Attorney, won the GOP nomination for Governor in 1990 by defeating the House Minority Leader Steve Pierce, a full spectrum conservative. In the General Election, Weld won over Democratic voters by highlighting his support for abortion rights, tax reduction, and taking a hard line on crime. He waxed sentimental about the days when prisoners experienced: “the joys of breaking rocks.”
Weld ran to the left of Democratic nominee John Silber on the environment. During a debate, Weld exploited a claim by the Democratic nominee, John Silber Ph.D., that beavers created so much wetland that preserving wetlands should not be of concern. Weld quipped: “Would you tell us doctor, what plans, if any, you have for the preservation of open spaces in Massachusetts, other than leave it to beavers?”
Weld was re-elected in 1994, pocketing a record 71% of the vote. Despite a modicum of Republicans in the state, Weld won 346 of the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities.While Weld often garners the Libertarian label, his record as Governor shows him to be a very watered-downed version. Weld supported the 1994 Federal ban on some semi-automatic firearms, Affirmative Action, and later in his term proposed and signed budgets which increased state spending. In his 1993 State of the State Address, Weld proposed more state spending and avowed: “We’re not against government spending. We don’t wish to dismantle government.”
When Weld ran unsuccefully for a U.S. Senate seat in 1996, he ran as a technocratic pragmatist, emphasizing his bi-partisan bone fides, exclaiming: “I have worked with Democrats, Republicans and Independents . . . Since I’ve been Governor, we practice good management in Massachusetts, not partisan finger-pointing.”
That year Nathaniel Palmer, an unpaid field operative for the Weld Senate campaign, approached the state chairman of the Libertarian party asking if the party would endorse Weld. Palmer recounts: “His response was indignant and incredulous - the way most Libertarian react, which I had naively forgotten. He said there was no way that would ever happen and that Weld was the furthest thing from a Libertarian.”
With a broad cross-section of voters across the political spectrum disaffected with the likely major party nominees, the Johnson/Weld ticket has a real electoral opportunity. The first step is to prove to the general electorate that the ticket is center-right fiscally and center-left on social issues, not a rarified Libertarian ticket. The ticket must support a retrenchment from foreign entanglements, and make the case that U.S. intervention effectuates blowback, ironically making the U.S. less safe. However, the ticket must emphasize that the U.S. will defend the homeland and will not enfeeble its military apparatus.
The ticket must create a master narrative of two outsiders with executive experience with a moderate Libertarian worldview. The ticket must also communicate that it is not confined to a Libertarian straight-jacket, and is willing to work with members of the two major parties.
A recent poll showed Johnson registering at 11% nationally. This is a number no Libertarian ticket has ever remotely reached. If the ticket registers at 15% in five national polls, Johnson would be allowed to participate in the Presidential debates. This would afford voters the opportunity to see Johnson on the same stage as the two major candidates, giving him nearly universal name recognition, and evidencing the fact that the American electorate has more than a simple “binary choice” between Clinton and Trump.
Some unadulterated Libertarians would be disconsolate at the ticket’s effort to broaden its appeal, but as Palmer points out, with the inclusion on the ticket of the more mainstream Weld: “I’m sure the anti-Johnson faction of the party now will point to further evidence that Johnson himself is not Libertarian, just an opportunist who couldn’t get the Republican nomination. And that generally sums up why the Libertarians do so poorly to advance candidates.”
A Johnson/Weld ticket must ignore this view, and present itself as an alternative to the two major parties. The campaign should repeat a quote by former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (1959-1971) in 1978: “Saying we should keep the two-party system simply because it is working is like saying the Titanic voyage was a success because a few people survived on life rafts.”
This is a once in a political lifetime chance for the Libertarians to present themselves as a viable and credible alternative to the electoral hegemony the Democrats and Republicans currently enjoy. A Johnson/Weld ticket will not likely win the election, but it could serve as a wellspring for qualified moderate Libertarians to run for down-ballot offices in the future, making the Party a “third force” in American politics, and making the party an electoral threat in future Presidential elections.
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