OK, so Gary Johnson probably isn’t going to be the nation’s 45th president. And it’s doubtful Bill Weld will be replacing Vice President Biden. But the Libertarian candidates still deserve to stand on the debate stage and offer Americans their message of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. If the Commission on Presidential Debates evaluated candidate credentials and not poll standings, Johnson and Weld would have been the first to qualify. Neither the Republican nor Democratic ticket can match the executive governing experience of the Libertarian duo. In fact, we haven’t had a third party ticket this qualified in modern history.
Johnson is a successful entrepreneur turned public servant. Sure, he’s quirky. It’s not everyday an Iron Man who wears Nikes with his suit and smokes pot seeks the nation’s highest office. But consider that he was twice elected governor as a Republican in the very Democratic state of New Mexico. His record included the elimination the state deficit and creation of a surplus before leaving office, all while reducing the size of state government (a feat accomplished by vetoing 750 bills during his tenure, more than all other 49 governors combined). Plus, he governed without an ethical blemish, quite a credential when viewed against the competition.
Then there’s Weld. Central casting could not have delivered anyone more suitable. Harvard undergraduate. Then Oxford. And Harvard Law. Weld was a U.S. attorney — recommended for that job by Rudy Giuliani — who went on to head the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. Like Johnson, Weld was elected twice as a Republican governor in a Democratic state. In fact, when re-elected in Massachusetts in 1994, it was with the largest margin in state history.
There’s something else notable: They are truly running as a team. Watch them interviewed together and you will see their ability to finish one another’s sentences on matters of agreement, and willingness to amiably disagree. How refreshing.
Johnson and Weld, unlike the Green Party, will have their names on ballots in all 50 states. Their credentials make them worthy of standing on the presidential debate stage. But for that to happen, they need to quickly document the support at least 15 percent in an average of five national polls. So far, they have not met the threshold.
Still, there are signs of momentum, including the endorsement by a major daily newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That embrace was a bona fide vote of confidence in Johnson and Weld, not just a rejection of Clinton and Trump. The editorial called Johnson “a man of good integrity, apparently normal ego, and sound ideas,” adding that “he is, in every respect, a legitimate and reasonable contender for the presidency.”
Anecdotally it seems like the largest impediment to their further ascension is the belief that they can’t win, and the idea that any vote for the ticket helps or hurts someone else. Weld rejected this argument in an interview when he secured the vice presidential nomination.
“I would never use the word ‘spoiler’ — I’m very comfortable with where we are,” he told me. “We’re going to speak truth to power and we are going to speak truths and we don’t have to trim or modify our positions. And if we wind up nudging the Democrats toward the right on economic issues and nudging the Republicans to the left on social issues I think we will have done the country a really big favor.”
Jesse Ventura, who in 1998 was elected governor of Minnesota under the banner of the Reform Party, bristles at the argument that a vote for Johnson-Weld is a waste.
“It’s ridiculous,” he told me. “When you vote, you’re not there to pick winner, you’re not there for a horse race. You’re there to pick the person you want most to be president. And if that person finished hypothetically fifth, so what? You did your job as a citizen to vote for a candidate of your choice.”
“When they come up with that nonsense about throwing your vote away, or electing someone else, that’s their patented Democratic and Republican excuse for losing,” Ventura added. “When they lose … they don’t assume the responsibility themselves. They point a finger at the third-party guy and say, ‘He’s who did it.’ How arrogant to think that everyone who votes for Gary would vote for one of them had Gary not been there.”
For those willing to listen, Johnson and Weld have offered a nuanced vision of independence and thoughtfulness. They refuse to campaign dirty and are even willing to utter the dreaded c-word: compromise. Which is another reason why they would add value to the debates. Putting Johnson and Weld on the stage would force their opponents to defend their views against independent thinking.
The Times-Dispatch endorsement said:
“But our final decision to endorse the Johnson-Weld ticket, and to do so with great confidence and enthusiasm, came only after Johnson met with the editorial board last Monday morning. We found him to be knowledgeable but unscripted, reasonable and good-humored, self-assured but free from arrogance, willing and able to address every question, consistent in his beliefs without being dogmatic, even-tempered, curious — and in all respects optimistically, realistically presidential.”
Admittedly, being “unscripted” has also hurt Johnson. Recently on MSNBC, he was flummoxed when asked his opinion on the Syrian refuge crisis in Aleppo. Whether that gaffe alone will prevent the Libertarians from reaching the debate threshold remains to be seen.
In the meantime, if a pollster calls your house, tell them you’re for Johnson-Weld. You can always change your mind — after the debates.
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Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com