Last summer, when Donald Trump visited with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board at the start of his campaign, we had no idea — nada, none, zippo — we were hosting the future Republican nominee for president. It’s been a surprising political cycle, to say the least.
With that in mind, the board met Tuesday with the Libertarian Party candidate for president, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. Could these outsiders climb enough in the polls to earn the right to participate in the fall presidential debates? We won’t again underestimate the voters’ ability to shock.
Yes, Johnson and Weld appear capable of making waves. Johnson hit 13 percent in a new CNN presidential poll. He likely needs to reach 15 percent in future polls to qualify for the debates. That’s doable. Could they go all the way to the White House? Well, that’s jumping ahead.
What earns their disarming buddy routine a minute of your time is their intriguing mix of government experience and mad chef political thinking.
Each is a former two-term Republican governor in a Democratic state who got the local economy moving. Governing across party lines means each is comfortable at compromise, a spirit at the heart of their quixotic campaign. Johnson and Weld aren’t running as anti-government-free-will Libertarians with a capital L. They are agile, practical-minded thinkers with a few quirks: Conservative on money issues, socially liberal, and skeptical of government power and military entanglements. Not so scary, right? “Most people are Libertarian,” Johnson told us. “It’s just that they don’t know it.”
That pithy line is a grabber, especially since they come across as decent fellows (with Weld more the orator during our hour together). What makes them worth a serious look? Many voters don’t want politics as usual. Republican primary and caucus voters rejected traditional candidates and messaging in favor of Trump. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, a “democratic socialist,” came reasonably close to upsetting Hillary Clinton.
And today? A majority of the electorate (58 percent!) is dissatisfied with the major party candidates for president, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Among registered voters, 47 percent strongly dislike Hillary Clinton; 49 percent strongly dislike Trump.
Now how do a couple of no- nonsense former governors sound?
The history of third-party candidates suggests that Johnson/Weld won’t get over the hump. In 1992, Ross Perot caught fire, winning 19 percent of the popular vote, yet didn’t claim a single state in the Electoral College. But this year could be more hospitable to a third-party ticket. Trump, with his reckless blather, frightens many voters. Clinton, cited by the head of the FBI as “extremely careless” for mishandling sensitive e-mails as secretary of state, has, um, a credibility deficit.
Our time with Johnson and Weld only scratched the surface of their views. The federal government is an obstacle to prosperity and an inefficient problem-solver, Johnson posited. He’s inclined to shut down or pare back agencies such as Education and Commerce and direct that money to the states. He wants a balanced budget. To preserve Social Security, he’d raise the retirement age and apply a means test. That’s sensible advice, not scary, especially since Johnson says he could compromise with Congress.
The most radical notion Johnson floated isn’t so radical: He favors legalizing marijuana, noting that it’s happening already. He won’t risk alienating voters by calling for the legalization of heroin, for example; he does support ideas like needle exchanges that save lives.
Concerning the war on terror, Johnson sounded cautious, fretting about the “unintended consequences” of trying to save the world. Said Weld about American troops in Afghanistan: “When should they come home — never? We have to leave 8,400 troops there because we decided to do what the British Empire and Russian empire decided to do and failed miserably?” We would disagree, but appreciated the directness of his answer.
There is more polishing for this duo to do if they’re to sway many voters. They’re at odds on some issues: Do they want to abolish the income tax in favor of a consumption or a flat tax? Johnson likes the former, Weld the latter. And Mr. Johnson, if your origin story as a Libertarian involves having been handed a short book as a lad, please do a Google search and determine the title of that worthy tome.
Obviously, this is a long-shot candidacy. The most likely scenario that propels Johnson to the presidency is a frankly impossible bank shot: If no candidate claims an Electoral College victory, the deadlocked race would be thrown to the House of Representatives.
Did we say “impossible”? After Trump, maybe nothing is.