Don’t look now, but the entire country is poised to live through the notorious 2004 South Park episode, “Douche and Turd,” in which elementary school kids are forced to pick between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich as a new school mascot.
Just how widely reviled are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? According to the poll aggregators over at RealClearPolitics, 54 percent of voters dislike the former Secretary of State, while 63 percent recoil from the New York billionaire. To put that in perspective, herpes has a better favorability rating than either of them.
Which is good news for the Libertarian Party, the country’s third-largest political party since its founding in 1971. In fact, a recent Monmouth University poll found that in a three-way race between the leading Democrat, Republican, and the 2012 LP candidate, Clinton managed 42 percent, Trump 30 percent, and Gary Johnson 11 percent. If and when Clinton and Trump actually start flinging mud at each other in a general election, there’s every reason to believe Johnson could go even higher.
Four years ago, Johnson—a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico—pulled 1.2 million votes and 1 percent of ballots cast, one of the very best third-party finishes in decades (the LP is the only minor party that is on the ballot in all 50 states). Given the disgust with major-party offerings and what will likely be the ugliest presidential race since 1800 (when supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson slagged the other’s candidate as “a hideous hermaphroditical character” and the “son of a half-breed Indian squaw raised on hoe-cakes,” among other insults) all the LP needs to do to claim its double-digit total is have a credible, experienced candidate show up.
Which, to be honest, is sort of a problem. To be sure, as a former governor, Johnson is a credible, experienced politician who takes the best from both sides of the aisle. Across the board, he is a social liberal who supports marriage equality, increased immigration, and pot legalization, and a fiscal conservative who managed to cut taxes, balance budgets, and reduce the state payroll while in office between 1994 and 2003.
A youthful 63, he’s climbed the tallest mountain on every continent (including Mt. Everest) and doesn’t lie about his pot smoking in a way that is genuinely refreshing. He built a contracting business he started during his college years into a multimillion-dollar operation and more recently headed up a company that certifies the ingredients and THC-levels of legal marijuana products.
As someone who closely followed his 2012 campaign (I’m not a member of the Libertarian Party but have voted for its presidential candidate in every election since 1988), I can attest that by the end of the season, he was capable of legitimately bringing crowds to their feet. He can connect, especially with young people, in a way that has proven elusive to Clinton and Trump. “As I told the students every time I visited a campus,” he’s said, sounding a little bit Obamaesque, “you are the director of your own movie, and if you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, change it.”
At the same time, he’s prone to shooting himself in the foot (indeed, if he hadn’t lost a toe to frostbite while climbing Everest, he would have doubtless blown it off many times over). Back in 2012, he generally eschewed all non-defensive military adventurism, except for a short-lived, poorly justified dedication to rooting out African warlord Joseph Kony. During a interview with me in January in which he announced his candidacy for the LP nod in 2016, he insisted that as president he would sign a bill banning the wearing of burqas and niqabs, which is kind of a weird thing for a Libertarian to be pushing, especially in an announcement interview (within hours, he walked it back: “My response was wrong....banning face veils wouldn’t work, and would be impossible to enforce without infringing on basic rights”).
Perhaps because he is a long-distance triathlete, he can be agonizingly slow off the starting line. “Gary Johnson has an amazing record,” Fox Business host and libertarian fellow traveler John Stossel complained to Adweek. “But he doesn’t always come across as passionate…I give him a hard time about being sleepy, as if he is high on weed.”
Stossel aired the first part of a Libertarian Party candidates’ forum last week and the second hour will run this Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox Business. To say that Johnson came across as sleepy while debating whether the government should force bakeries to produce “cakes for Nazi weddings” (one of the topics that came up) is a charitable description, especially in light of who Johnson was debating. The other participants included software anti-virus magnate John McAfee, whose utter lack of political experience is eclipsed by a personal life that involves being named as “a person of interest” in a murder in Belize and faking a heart attack to escape Guatemalan authorities, and Austin Petersen, a 35-year-old former associate producer at Fox Business who is dogged by accusations that he bragged on a radio show about “swimming” in “a pyramid pile of pussy,” whatever the hell that is.
By common acclamation of viewers, Johnson didn’t win the first part of the debate. A Stossel producer swore to me that the second half of the forum is “even more entertaining,” which I don’t doubt, but given the car-wreck quality of that first hour, this Friday’s show may well seem more like a David Cronenberg film than a political debate.
This much seems certain: The Libertarian Party will go the farthest in 2016 with Gary Johnson at the top of its ticket. Yet if this is the winter of our electoral discontent, American voters still aren’t so pissed off that novices such as McAfee, whose gnomic invocations of libertarian dogma and piercing eyes can be quite beguiling, or Petersen, no matter how much pussy he’s swimming in, are capable of reaching anything like the 11 percent that Johnson has already registered.
The LP meets in Orlando in May to pick its presidential candidate and, even assuming Johnson regains the form that earned him 1.2 million votes in 2012, there’s still a non-trivial chance that the party faithful may dump him in favor of somebody less capable. In the past, after all, the LP has chosen candidates who eschew driver’s licenses and any possibility of electoral success.
But if the party does back Johnson, and he does get his act together, and Hillary and The Donald go after each other like Adams and Jefferson once did…well, let’s just say it will be the most entertaining election this side of South Park. Except that this time, there will be an actual third choice that might actually represent the plurality of American voters who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative.