July 7, 2016


Unconventional Convention (OLIVER WISEMAN, July/August 2016, Standpoint)

For a man who wants to be President of the United States, Gary Johnson apologises a lot -- often when he doesn't have anything to apologise for. Apologetic modesty is his default setting. When answering questions, even easy ones, he is prone to raise his shoulders in a shrug, tilt his head, smile and begin his answer with "Look . . .", "Listen . . .", "Well . . ." or some other I'm-being-as-reasonable-as-I-can sort of opening. When he complains about not being included in national polls, a regular gripe of his, he does not rail at being shut out of the system; instead, he says calmly, "Hey, why not include this guy?" At one point in the convention he even says, "I constantly apologise for not being the best advocate when it comes to articulating these things." His style, however, is a mixed blessing. The bumbling means media appearances can fall flat and he often misses opportunities to make a clear case for libertarianism. But by avoiding the kind of declarative statements that go down well with doctrinaire libertarians -- "Taxation is theft!" -- he has an appeal to voters susceptible to libertarianism of a more common-sense tinge. Added to Johnson's mild manner is a lack of polish. During one televised press conference in Orlando, a journalist asks how he feels and he releases a loud "Whooooooop!" When asked if he's a fringe candidate his response is usually "Oh, yeah, totally fringe." The last time he ran for president he stripped naked and climbed into a hot tub while a reporter profiling him looked on. 

Johnson spent his life before politics running Big J Enterprises, a thousand-man construction company that grew out of his work as a door-to-door handyman in college. He is lean and fit, not just by the standards of a 63-year-old but by any measure. In his spare time he runs ultramarathons and takes part in Ironman races (extended triathlons). He has climbed Everest and hasn't had a drink in 29 years because alcohol was "stopping me being the best rock climber I could be". He has spent the last few years as CEO of a medical marijuana company and said in March that he uses the drug "occasionally".

To the party faithful, Johnson's name is shorthand for compromise. Many Libertarians are wary -- and weary -- of self-exiled Republicans using their party as a last-chance saloon. Their 2008 candidate for president, Bob Barr, was once a prominent social conservative whose voting record as a Congressman was given a perfect score by the Christian Coalition, and who, in the 1990s, was a leading figure in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, arguing in Congress that "the flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centred morality are licking at the very foundation of our society." Barr had gone on something of a political journey to get from there to a sufficiently live-and-let-live approach to feel at home with Libertarians. Yet while "recovering Republicans", as many describe themselves, make up a significant chunk of Libertarian supporters, there are a good number of members with a left-wing background and, if the Orlando convention is anything to go by, "Republican!" is an insult Libertarians are fond of hurling at each other. 

Among delegates I speak to, the spectrum of opinions on Johnson, the Governor turned pot CEO, range from those who just don't see Johnson as a true Libertarian to those who agree with him when he asks, "If you can't go straight from A to Z, why not start with B?"  

One week before the convention, Johnson burnishes his mainstream credentials by announcing Bill Weld as his preferred running-mate. Weld, 70, was the Republican Governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997. He is about as Yankee-establishment as they come. He is a Harvard man. He sprinkles his speech with sailing metaphors, and the prefix "My old friend" automatically attaches itself to the names of presidents, senators and every other bigwig he mentions. Asked how his family got their money, he once said, "We don't get money, we have money."

Both Johnson and Weld were Republican Governors in "blue" (Democrat)  states, something that adds to their neither-Trump-nor-Hillary appeal. Weld's political reputation is built on fiscal conservatism. He may have an orthodox manner and fuddy-duddy instincts (he irritates delegates in Orlando by telling them people think voting Libertarian means that unsavoury types will move into the neighbourhood), but his social liberalism is sincere. As Governor he was an advocate for gay rights and appointed Margaret Marshall, the judge who would go on to rule that same-sex couples in the state had the right to marry. He says of the two main parties, "The Ds are off-base economically and the Rs are off- base on social issues." 

In Orlando, Weld struggles to shake off the impression that at heart he is still a Republican. He tells me, somewhat unconvincingly, that he feels at home at the convention, which "really isn't that different from a Republican convention, and I've been to plenty of those". 

Posted by at July 7, 2016 3:53 PM