ORLANDO, Fla. — There were moments during the Libertarian Party convention here over the Memorial Day weekend when it appeared as if the party might actually reject Gov. Gary Johnson and Gov. William Weld as its presidential and vice presidential nominees.
But a rising tide of realism, and sense of disappointment and outrage over the choice between the likely nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, turned back that challenge.
It is true that Johnson, who served as the Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, came into the convention as the clear favorite at the party’s most high-profile gathering.
Dues-paying members of the 45-year-old party have increased by 30 percent this year. A record number of 985 delegates and 344 alternates attended the convention. There were 250 members of the media here, compared with 25 four years ago.
In spite of record budget cuts as governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997, Weld had taken positions (on gun control, for example), that placed him on the verge of being considered a carpetbagger by Libertarian regulars.
Johnson had a strong reservoir of goodwill among the delegates. After all, the party selected Johnson as its presidential nominee in 2012, together with California Superior Court Judge Jim Gray as the vice presidential nominee. The Libertarian Party had its best result ever.
In dozens of conversations and speeches during more than four days at the convention, Johnson recounted that in the 2012 campaign, he was greeted by many Libertarians who urged him not to give up on the party. Call these the "pragmatists."
Yet, as with all political parties, a core group of party members — the ideological base — are so enthusiastic in their views that they don't seem to see the merit in moderation.
For example, the Libertarian Party platform "calls for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution," urges the repeal of laws against marijuana and other drugs, and — unusually — takes no position on the issue of abortion.
Some of this ideological attitude emerged during the presidential debate on Saturday night, when Johnson was asked whether drivers' licenses were an infringement on liberty. Johnson tried to shift the focus to the laws against other forms of occupational licensing that he had vetoed as governor of New Mexico.
The other candidates for president took a more extreme view on this and other questions asked in the debate.
Johnson's core message was "to understand and articulate the goal, but also recognize the reality that it might not be accomplished tomorrow." Instead of insisting on A to Z Libertarianism, "getting from A to D is much better than just sticking at A."
In this battle between pragmatism and the extreme, Johnson's task was not dissimilar to what was faced by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, or by British Labour Party leader Tony Blair. They struggled and succeeding in pulling their left-leaning parties away from dogmatism and toward a more moderate political ideal.
On Sunday's first ballot for the presidential nomination against five rivals, Johnson landed just a handful of votes shy of a majority.
Libertarian Party regulars assured me that this was custom in the party: Voting first for the "most Libertarian," and then switching to a more realistic choice on subsequent ballots. Johnson secured a comfortable majority of 55 percent on the second ballot against the remaining four candidates.
But the vice presidential nomination was more of a nail-biter. Given a chance to speak before balloting, Johnson made an emotional plea to the delegates: You've trusted me to be your standard bearer, so please give me the team I need to run an effective campaign.
Weld polled 49.0 percent on the first ballot, and barely did better on the second ballot after another of the more "Libertarian" candidates dropped off. He secured 50.6 percent.
But it was enough to make a ticket of two former Republican governors. Both have been graded as among the most fiscally conservative governors in the nation.2 comments on this story
Because the party has consistently fought for access to state ballots, Johnson and Weld will be on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Asked how they felt at a press conference after the vote, both Weld and Johnson expressed relief with the results. Weld, who endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2008 and 2012 and served as his finance chairman in New York State, where he now lives, said he saw his job as raising money to launch a serious campaign with the Democratic and Republican parties.
"With the two of us, we have a real shot at shaking politics up," Johnson said.
Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Best Best and Krieger, where he focuses on technology, media and telecommunications. Connect on Twitter @drewclark via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.