Gary Johnson, in Ivar's-light. (Click to enlarge.)
Ivar's Salmon House on Northlake Way feels like a relic from old Seattle. It’s a 70's steakhouse-style restaurant, dolled up in Native American paraphernalia, with a 52-foot canoe on display in the center of the dining room. Everything is bathed in an orange-gold glow, making everyone look like they’ve just gotten a fake tan. Last night, forty or so Libertarians gathered in the back room to meet a former Republican presidential candidate. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who announced back in December that he was going to abandon the Republican Party and run for the presidency on the Republican ticket, was the guest of honor at a meet-and-greet on the eve of the state Libertarian Party convention.
It was an older crowd, to be sure. Couples in their fifties and sixties dined on oysters and chowder from the buffet table and drank wine from the cash bar until the time for some brief speeches began. Former Justice Richard Sanders introduced Governor Johnson. “I wish you the best of luck,” Sanders said to Johnson, “We need people like you.” Sanders said he “lost a narrow election” in 2010, but the electorate has shown that it’s even more open to elected officials who share Sanders’s views, “so this year,” he announced, “I’m going to run again.”
Gary Johnson looks and acts like a cool college professor. He’s relaxed, he doesn’t try too hard to make you like him, and he has a long personal history that he uses to illustrate his points. (Sample Johnson sentence: “I had a terrible paragliding accident.” Another sample Johnson sentence: “I summited Mount Everest.”) You get the sense that he’s put a lot of thought into all of his answers, and you also get the sense that he’s looking forward to debating you, and to eventually pulling you over to his side. Last night, he called himself “the best spokesman for Libertarian ideals and values.” He said his strategy is to wind up “polling at 15% versus Obama and Romney,” therefore earning his place on “the debate stage” with the two major parties. “If that happens,” Johnson said, “anything is possible.” Being Libertarian, Johnson said, is “coming out of the closet for me.” A few months ago, he wore his first “Libertarian t-shirt. I’ve never worn a Republican t-shirt. Not once. Because I didn’t want to have to defend Republican dogma.” His personal stories were intended to convince the room that he’s not just a fly-by-night Libertarian, that he’s finally come home. It seemed to work.
A few minutes after his speech, a circle of partyers surrounded Johnson. Someone asked him if he anticipates much trouble on his path to become the party's nominee. Not really, Johnson said, “this is mine to lose.” I asked him if he’s encountered much skepticism from Libertarians. He said a little bit, but he understands: “There should be healthy skepticism.” But he pointed out that even as a Republican governor, he “was always described as the Libertarian governor of New Mexico.” Is he worried about his message overlapping with Ron Paul’s? Not at all, he said, “you’ve gotta hear a message from a couple different sources for it to resonate.” How does he think he’s going to get to that magic 15% poll number that will get him into the presidential debates? “Right now I’m polling at 9% against Obama” in Public Policy Polling polls, he said. “All that might not be because it’s my name [on the polls], but because it’s a third name.” Furthermore, Johnson asked, “what happens to the Ron Paul supporters?” He suspects they’re not going to fall in line behind Mitt Romney, and he thinks they could break for him. “The Libertarian party has an organization in every state,” he says, which will definitely help him in the general election, too.
Today and tomorrow, the Cascade Liberty Summit—the official name of the Washington state Libertarian Party’s annual convention—is meeting at the Best Western Plus in Tukwila. This morning at 9:30 am, there were 30 attendees in the conference room for the convention. All of them were white, and four were women. At 11 am, there were 38 white people in the room for Johnson’s speech. Four of them were female, still. I’m the youngest person here.
Johnson’s speech to the CLS touched on a lot of the same issues he discussed last night. "I started a one-man handyman business in Albuquerque in 1974,” which means “I am the handiest guy you’ve ever met.” He said he’s still popular in his home state: “In New Mexico, people wave at me with all five fingers, and not just one.” Johnson explained why he’s running for president: “I think the country is in really deep trouble. I think the dollar is going to collapse.” He made three promises for a Johnson administration: First, “I promise to submit a balanced budget to congress in the year 2013,” second, “I’m also promising to veto any legislation where expenses exceed revenue," and “lastly, I promise to advocate on the part of throwing out the entire federal tax system. Let’s throw out the income tax, let’s throw out corporate tax, let’s throw out income tax withholding...let’s throw out the IRS.” Johnson’s answer is “a 23% consumption tax.” Much of his speech had to do with the fair tax, which he says will only apply to the end product at point of sale.
The rest of his speech was issues and personality based: “For what it’s worth,” Johnson said, “my favorite book is The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand put into words....that the best I could do for others was to be the best myself I could be. He also believes in “marriage equality,” stopping torture and ending the death penalty. He said, “I support a woman’s right to choose...I don’t believe in building a fence across the border...I’m opposed to foreign aid...we need to stop the prohibition of drugs...I, if given an opporrtunity, would abolish the Department of Homeland Security [and] I would repeal the PATRIOT Act.” After he stressed his plan to get in the presidential debates, Johnson said his secondary plan was to get matching funds for the Libertarian Party. “If the libertarian candidate gets 5% of the national vote, then the Libertarian Party will get $90 million in matching funds from the federal government,” Johnson said, and when the room erupted in groans at the thought of a government payout, “You may be opposed to matching funds, but $90 million would be a game changer,” which he would invest in state parties. “When you consider the entire budget of the state Libertarian Party of New York is 30,000 dollars, you can do the math.”
During the question and answer session after the speech, someone asked Johnson how he would fend off Washington gridlock as president. “I’m gonna argue that gridlock is a really good thing and if [Congress doesn’t] do anything at all, we’re better off. I will argue that till the sun goes down. Cooperation has gotten us to where we are, which is near total collapse. We’re only six to eight years away from being where Greece is now.” The Johnson speech gave way to a presidential debate between Johnson and the incredibly named Carl Person, a candidate who probably would have been the front-runner for the Libertarian nomination in any other year. Unfortunately, Person’s schtick—one of the issues he was most excited about involved setting up an exchange where small businesses can advertise for capital, to help “take the money back from the moneychangers”—seemed small and kind of weird next to Johnson’s laid-back charisma.
The Washington state Libertarian Party straw poll took place immediately after the debate. For some reason, each attendee was given a key, which they would then drop into a jar marked with their Libertarian candidate’s name. There were five options, including “Other.” the two biggest vote-getters were Carl Person, with two keys in his jar, compared to Gary Johnson, who came away with 23 keys, making him Washington’s choice in the Libertarian caucuses.
The rest of the convention today has been pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be. Trent England, Vice President of Policy with the Freedom Foundation, gave a speech where he declared that “we have an austerity plan in the United States,” and that the plan is “called the United States Constitution.” He said that Washington state’s constitutional demand to make education the primary duty of government “always struck me as kind of odd,” but that he loved our state’s law supporting a balanced budget. He also supported the Republican Congressional takeover in Olympia of a few weeks back, saying he enjoyed hearing Lisa Brown whine about how conservatives were “engaging in some kind of war against women or something.” The lesson that England took from that Republican takeover was that “elections matter, at least a little.”
Patrick Conner with the National Federation of Independent Business let loose with a manifesto about what Libertarian voters should do in the fall: “Liberty is too important, too fragile...to leave to the government.” He said voters should, “stop electing officials who think the only good job is a government job...Stop electing officials who treat the tax code like an a la carte menu for their political donors...We need to stop electing officials who think everyone should live in an urban village along a light rail corridor...Stop electing officials who think ‘unique’ is somehow a disability that needs to be protected...Stop electing officials who demonize the one percent” when we should instead “teach our children how to become part” of the one percent. “We need to start electing lawmakers who will lead,” Conner concluded.
Other things I learned at the CLS today: Cars are better than public transportation because cars can take you door to door. American politics is getting less substantive. People aren’t Libertarian because they’re “ignorant.” You can’t legally rewire your own house. Justice Sanders, who stood against marriage equality, is “one of the loudest voices for individual liberties.” The best food within walking distance from the Best Western Plus in Tukwila is a Wendy’s. If you listen to more than three hours of Libertarian thought in a single day, you will come away with a screaming, awful headache.
Still, I tell you what I didn’t hear today: I didn’t hear a whole lot of people debating how to take away rights from gays and lesbians because God hates them. I didn’t hear anything about God at all, in fact. I didn’t hear any warmongering. I didn’t hear any race-baiting. Most of the attacks on President Obama were policy-based. Nobody made a teleprompter joke.
Here’s what I think: If Republicans actually believed all that small-government shit they started spewing back in 2009 when they rebranded themselves as Teabaggers, they would be the Libertarian Party right now, and Gary Johnson would probably be their candidate. Republicans talk about freedoms and liberties, but it’s obvious they’re just repackaged neocons paying lip service to small government while playing the same bullshit game they’ve always played: Big military, tight control over pants-related issues, Christianist agendas.
I would have loved it if the teabagger “revolution” had led to a Gary Johnson-Vs.-Obama general election fight this November. Gary Johnson would be a Republican candidate I could respect. I certainly wouldn’t vote for him—I think a national sales tax is a shitty idea—but I do think that we would at least be having a substantive conversation during the general election about what we want government to be. Do we really want government to be as unobtrusive as possible, or do we just really dislike paying taxes, because it’s uncomfortable for us once a year? I’d be willing to take part in that conversation, and I believe that more people would be on my side once all the votes were counted. But it would be a conversation worth having about what we want government to be. And one thing I can promise you is that Mitt Romney is not going to offer up a conversation worth having, and that’s a real goddamned shame.