I’ve written about most of the presidential candidates that are at all significant: the walking System 1 error Donald Trump, the dog-whistling Jill Stein, and the often-misjudged, science-believing, listening Hillary Clinton. (If you see a bias, I neither deny nor apologize for it.)
But one candidate I haven’t talked about is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. There’s one big reason for this: I find Johnson astonishingly dull as a candidate.
Unlike Trump, he doesn’t have a record of making stunningly bigoted comments. Unlike both Trump and Stein, though, he has an actual record of governance as a two-term Republican governor of New Mexico.
And as a libertarian, Johnson has put forth platform ideas that, by and large, I find horrifying bad. (YMMV, depending on where you sit on the spectrum.)
Still, even though I haven’t found anything appealing about him, I have always sort of kept in my mind the notion that he’s not so unthinkable a candidate. Minor parties have a tendency to put forth fringe candidates for offices like president, in large part because they’re already somewhat on the fringe by virtue of being a minor party and because their membership is going to support a candidate that represents the unique policy positions that make them distinct from other minor parties and the major parties as well.
Johnson isn’t quite that. He does represent libertarian positions fairly well, well enough that it doesn’t feel forced for him to represent the party (and this is his second time doing so for the presidential slot), but it feels — or at least has felt — less like he’s wearing a clown mask in this role.
When you add to that fact the running mate he hand-picked, former Republican governor of Massachusetts Bill Weld, the 2016 Libertarian Party ticket actually sort of looks plausible if you squint and tilt your head slightly to the right.¹
But since I already have a candidate I am enthusiastic about in Hillary Clinton and I find Johnson’s policies repellent, I haven’t given his candidacy much thought at all, other than to marvel a tiny bit at how surprisingly high he’s managed to get his poll numbers.
There’s a catch, right? you might be thinking. This is the place for a rhetorical turn. What happened now?
I’m so glad you asked, Dear Reader.
Swing and a Miss…Again
Back on September 8, Johnson made a widely-reported gaffe when he appeared in the MSNBC show Morning Joe and was asked what he would do about Aleppo as president, to which he infamously replied, “What is Aleppo?”
In his defense, Johnson took the blame for not being able to pick up on the question but said that he had mentally interpreted “Aleppo” as an acronym. I personally find this to be a rather tenuous explanation, but he’s human and those things can absolutely happen. Fine.
(It should also be noted here that this isn’t the first error like this that has been reported of Johnson. In a New Yorker profile about the Libertarian Party convention in July, Johnson is quoted as having asked “Who’s Harriet Tubman?” when being led into a room that bore her name, and an aide reportedly had to remind him who she was.)Well, it happened again to Johnson on Wednesday when he and Weld appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews:
The transcript here is ridiculous, but I feel like you have to see it in writing:
Matthews: Who’s your favorite foreign leader?
Johnson: Who’s my favorite–
Matthews: Any — just name anywhere, any one of the continents, any country. Name one foreign leader that you respect and look up to. Anybody.
Johnson: [sputters air]
Weld: Mine was Shimon Peres.
Matthews: No, no, okay, I’m talking about living. [points to Johnson] Go ahead.
Matthews: You gotta do this. Anywhere, any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe, over there — Asia, South America, Africa — name a foreign leader you respect.
Johnson: I guess I’m having an ‘Aleppo moment’ in the former president of Mexico–
Matthews: But I’m giving you the whole world!
Johnson: I know, I know.
Matthews: Anybody in the world you like. Anybody. Pick any leader.
Johnson: The former president of Mexico.
Matthews: Which one?
Johnson: I’m–I’m having a brain…I’m having a brain [unintelligible]…
Matthews: [talking over] Well, name anybody!
Weld: [Vicente] Fox? [Ernesto] Zedillo? [Felipe] Calderón?
Johnson: [talking over Weld] Fox!
Matthews: [to Weld] Okay, who’s your favorite foreign leader? Get him off the hook. Name a foreign leader you respect.
Johnson: [almost to himself] Fox! He was terrific.
Weld: Um…[Angela] Merkel.
Matthews: Okay, Merkel. Okay, fine, saved yourself. Can’t argue with that.
The amount of time that transpires between Chris Matthews asking the question and Gary Johnson finally blurting out “Fox!” after having been coached by Bill Weld is a staggering forty seconds.
(By the way, I hope that was half as fun to read as it was to transcribe.)
I have to say that I feel a little sorry for Johnson there because he is clearly aware of how bad this is for him, and while it might have seemed at the time like a good idea to engage in a little bit of self-deprecation, it just connected this mental lapse to the Aleppo gaffe and gave further evidence of a pattern.
If you watch more of that interview, you could be forgiven for thinking that, whatever Johnson’s merits as a candidate and individual, the real brains of the ticket is in the passenger seat.
This isn’t a position I had previously held, despite having read many more politically knowledgeable folks than me talking about how Bill Weld is a more plausible president than Johnson. But watching this appearance completely solidifies that impression for me. Weld is mentally sharp and clearly informed in a way that Johnson doesn’t appear to be. When Matthews asked about each candidate’s favorite Supreme Court justice of the current court, the way that Johnson quickly agreed with Weld on Anthony Kennedy reeks of desperation, as though he forgot to study for the pop quiz and is trying to crib answers from the overachiever in the next desk.
Then again, maybe this is a bad appearance on which to judge Johnson’s performance. Maybe this was a bad night. But more and more, it looks like Johnson’s having a lot of bad nights, and that is not a good omen for a presidential candidate.
Update: Johnson went and made it worse:
It's been almost 24 hours…and I still can't come up with a foreign leader I look up to.
— Gov. Gary Johnson (@GovGaryJohnson) September 29, 2016
Please, just stop.
¹ Or to the left on a few issues. ^