The Democratic and Republican parties are preparing to select Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as their nominees. Do voters have any reasonable alternative?
Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of the very Democratic state of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, hopes to provide that choice.
And if he can make that choice seem real to American voters, he could be an agent for something much greater: A realignment of our political parties.
"If I can win the Libertarian Party nomination [next week], I will be the only third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states," Johnson said in an interview in Salt Lake on Wednesday. "And I'll be running against the most polarizing figures in U.S. politics."
Johnson also announced that he had selected William Weld, the former Republican governor of the very Democratic state of Massachusetts, as his vice presidential running mate on the Libertarian Party ticket.
This combination of two widely regarded former governors — both of whom take pride in being "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" — could elevate the party to an entirely different realm in 2016.
But to do so, the Libertarian Party will have to break some deeply entrenched habits. It has been overly preoccupied with ideological purity, including an unwillingness to accept compromises necessary for governance. It dubs itself as “The party of principle: Minimum government, maximum freedom.”
Johnson referred to this directly in our interview. “Does the Libertarian Party want to continue to be a club, or does the LP recognize that you need to talk to a full room?”
He compares his experience in 2016 with his campaign in 2012 as the LP’s presidential nominee. Now, “for the first time, LP meetings will be packed.”
As a political philosophy, libertarianism traces to classic liberal thinkers Adam Smith, John Locke and our nation's Founding Fathers. The great 19th century English liberals Richard Cobden and John Bright are heroes because they so well articulated how the economic benefits of free trade improve the moral lives of the world’s poor.
Libertarianism is also deeply threaded into American politics of all stripes, from the checks and balances embedded in our Constitution to Henry David Thoreau's maxim in "Civil Disobedience": "That government is best which governs least."
But if libertarianism is as American as apple pie, why such a small Libertarian Party?
At different times in their histories, both the Democratic and the Republican parties have been “libertarian” parties. The impetus for the creation of the Libertarian Party in 1972 was a double-whammy: The dissatisfaction that conservatives felt at the imposition of wage and price controls, and the war in Vietnam.
The LP has united free markets with advocacy for peace and social tolerance. The former have generally aligned with Republicans, the latter with Democrats.
For example, 1978 marked two libertarian victories in California: The passage of Proposition 13, which limited the state’s property taxes, and defeat of the Briggs Initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. That year, Ed Clark (no relation to the author) received 5.5 percent of California’s popular vote in his quest for the governorship.
Clark attempted to bring his message of free markets, social tolerance and non-intervention as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1980. But Ronald Reagan co-opted his themes of free markets and limited government, and independent third-party candidate John Anderson stole much of the media attention, libertarian advocates complain. He got 921,128 votes.
Still, 1980 was the high-water mark for a Libertarian Party presidential candidate — until 2012, where Johnson got 1,275,821 votes, 1 percent of the total.
Johnson, of course, ran and won the New Mexico governorship as a Republican. He cut taxes, vetoed more than 750 pieces of legislation, and made school choice and marijuana decriminalization his signature issues. The former passed the Legislature, the latter did not. New Mexico is one of 20 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana; four others also allow recreational marijuana.
There’s no question that social mores have changed in a more libertarian direction over the past generation. That’s old news.
What’s new is the Republican Party’s potential abandonment, under Donald Trump, of free trade and free markets. And with the Cold War over, and the war on terror uncertain, neither Democrats nor Republicans have clear foreign policies.
What I come back to is the need for prudent governance. Who knows that better than former governors who have had to bridge the chasm of Republican free-market values with Democratic social liberalism?
In nine of the past 10 presidential elections, a former governor has been on a major-party presidential ballot. The former governor won in seven of those nine elections. In the election of 2016, might former Gov. Johnson be the best choice to bring prudence and reason to the presidency?
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 or via email at [email protected].