Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson has something to say to all Americans: when it comes to civil liberties, immigration, foreign policy, trade, and a host of other issues, the Republican and Democratic Parties have both lost their minds.
He’s not very good at saying it, mind you. The former Republican two-term governor of New Mexico is not a polished speaker, and gave rambling—and occasionally incoherent—answers during a CNN-sponsored town hall telecast Wednesday night. Voters who have no idea what the Libertarian Party stands for may have come away just as confused.
Which is a shame, because on pure substance, the Libertarian ticket should appeal to voters who are fed up with an election cycle that has produced the two most hated major-party presidential candidates in modern history. The message will resonate with Americans, but only if they ignore the fact that the messenger sounds like he stopped consuming marijuana only recently—which, in fact, he did.
Johnson made his pitch to voters Wednesday night alongside his vice presidential pick, former Massachusetts Republican governor William Weld. The socially liberal, fiscally conservative former state executives asked the nation to “reject the extremes of both parties.”
Their timing could not have been better. As Johnson and Weld spoke to CNN viewers, a curious spectacle was unfolding in the House of Representatives where Congressional Democrats, led by former civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, staged a sit-in to demand federal action on gun control. Specifically, they want Republicans to sign off on a plan, supported by President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, that would prohibit citizens on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms.
Such a policy would obviously violate the Constitution, which stipulates that the government may not deny citizens’ their rights—and like it or not, gun ownership is a right, according to the Second Amendment—without due process. Putting someone on a watch list does not constitute due process, which is why the idea is vehemently opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
But extremism in opposition to liberty is not solely the province of the Democratic Party—not remotely. Earlier this week, Republican leadership began scheming to approve new surveillance powers for the FBI. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gets his way, the agency would be able to monitor online activity without seeking warrants.
In the wake of national tragedies like the horrific mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Republicans and Democrats alike retreat to their preferred policy solutions, which would invariably punish vast swaths of people—be they immigrants, gun owners, or Muslims—for the misdeeds of a few. Neither party cares very much about civil liberties when civil liberties are inconvenient.
Johnson and Weld, however, are a breath of fresh air for Americans who want the government to consistently respect their rights. On immigration, both are horrified by Donald Trump’s plan to deport 11 million immigrants. Noting that he governed a border state, Johnson slammed the plan as wildly impractical. He maintained that illegal immigrants are hard-working people who don’t take jobs from American citizens. Weld pointed out, as he has before, that only an authoritarian government on par with Nazi Germany would be able to accomplish mass deportation.
They also criticized Trump—a “huckster,” according to Weld—for working to undermine free trade.
Johnson was more measured toward Clinton, even referring to her a “wonderful public servant.” It wasn’t his best moment, to be sure. Even so, he implicitly criticized the former Secretary of State’s role in crafting the Obama foreign policy, which has made America less safe by intervening the country in too many Middle Eastern conflicts.
Johnson’s best answer, sadly, came when he asked Weld to field a question on his behalf. The former governor of Massachusetts has a much better way with words: he was both polished and presidential. It’s no wonder former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he could easily vote for Weld, but wasn’t sure about Johnson yet.
That said, charisma isn’t actually a qualification to be president. Clinton and Trump are charismatic: they both possess ample star-power, give entertaining speeches, and inspire fiercely loyal followers. At the same time, they are both flawed, evidently corrupt, possibly amoral human beings. Clinton’s signature contribution to recent public policy was the catastrophic decision to intervene in Libya, and Trump’s embarrassing temperament could well be a threat to national security.
Mild-mannered Johnson doesn’t want to put American citizens on secret lists and deprive them of their rights. He doesn’t want kill the families of terrorists. He doesn’t want to start trade wars with China or Mexico. He doesn’t want to continue failed wars, be they domestic (like the drug war) or abroad.
There are a lot of voters who could find something to like in all that: Bernie Bros who (rightly) think Clinton is a neoconservative shill, anti-Trumpers who (rightly) think the GOP nominee is mentally unstable, and of course, libertarians themselves.
But if Johnson wants to put together anything resembling a coalition to overturn the two-party system—or, more realistically, put a respectable dent in it—he must sell himself and his ideas a lot better than he did last night.
And he’s only going to get so many more chances.