Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson knows that his path to the presidency is like a rickety Rube Goldberg machine, where everything must progress with perilous perfection if he's going to make it to the top. He can't win if he doesn't appear in the debates this fall. He can't appear in the debates unless he gets 15 percent in the polls. He can't get 15 percent in the polls unless he's in the surveys. And, after all that, if he's not on ballots in all 50 states, none of it matters.
It's a tough mountain to climb, even for a guy who trudged up Everest with a broken leg. When the former governor of New Mexico last ran in 2012, he got 1 percent of the vote. Getting the ball rolling in this precarious electoral Mouse Trap requires lots of attention; if no one knows who Gary Johnson is, it doesn't matter if the polling firms notice him.
Which is where Wednesday night's Libertarian town hall comes in. CNN gave Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld, one of its biggest sounding boards: a chance to go on a first date with the many Americans eager to spurn Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The network filled the room with undecided voters thirsty for a candidate they don't hate, and Johnson and Weld responded by putting on a performance permeated with libertarian values. Just perhaps not the kind America was looking for.
Johnson's responses to Chris Cuomo's questions floated above any possible answers, unrestricted by the norms of the town hall format, which usually requires that candidates answer a question, or at least pose an alternate query of their own making and respond to that instead. He vowed to keep government outside of houses and town halls everywhere with a voice that languidly do-si-doed from thought to thought, like how Squidward might talk in a Billy Wilder movie. Complex problems posed by people in the audience, to hear him tell it, could be fixed by "discussion" or a promise to think deeply about the issues once in office. When asked to vouch for his Libertarian credentials, Johnson noted that he was a veto fiend in New Mexico, which perhaps explains why he seems less comfortable talking about policy than the absence of it.
Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts — who broadcast his newly acquired Libertarian leanings by wearing an outfit completely untethered from societal regulation, marrying checks with pinstripes and zigzags — acted as Johnson's translator, adapting the unabridged text as necessary. When Johnson vowed to abolish the IRS, Weld offered, "I don't think you have to go so far as abolishing the IRS." Even within the Libertarian ticket, individual judgment reigns supreme.
The pair seemed most comfortable talking about the aspect of modern politics that makes them especially hopeful this election year: everything in the Donald Trump campaign canon. Johnson called Trump's blueprint for a beautiful wall something that "borders on insanity," and Weld repeated his line about how Trump's deportation plan brings to mind Nazi Germany, adding, "You cannot be a president of the United States and talk like that." When they were forced to play a word-association game, Weld called Trump a huckster. "I am sure there is something good to say about Trump somewhere," Johnson said. The third-party candidates will have more experience in government than the Republican ticket, no matter who Trump picks as his vice-presidential nominee.
But don't expect Johnson and Weld, who could start an impressive-sounding rural law firm if this White House thing doesn't work out, to join the quest for the perfect nickname for the reigning king of childhood taunts. "I don't think either of us are going to engage in any sort of name-calling," Johnson said. "We're going to keep this to the issues, and the issues are plenty."
As these two tried to convince America that Libertarianism was sexy enough to go viral this year, Democratic legislators were hours into a sit-in protesting the lack of a vote on gun bills in the House. People were live-tweeting footage from the Capitol like it was the latest episode of Game of Thrones. For one night, C-SPAN, the official channel of people trying to fall asleep and old men who stand up and give a long monologue after raising their hand to ask a question at panels, was more lively than CNN, our nation's leading expert in missing planes and llama chases.
"It's almost like the parties exist more for the purpose of slandering each other than they do for having constructive approaches to legislation," Weld, looking like a character from a Rankin/Bass remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, argued during the debate. "We like to think we're going to be the third way." But what if we can't peel our eyes away from the interpretive electoral dance offered by the two parties, a performance meant to serve as an audition for November instead of an effort to enact policy now?
How does a third-party ticket compete in these circumstances, when they also need to be popular enough to get the poll numbers that’ll put them on the debate stage?
New York magazine asked Johnson this question a few weeks ago: How would he persuade a voter to go Libertarian this year? "I’d tell him what I had to say, let him think it over," he said. "If he still thought he’d vote for Trump, he should vote for Trump. I’m not going to try to convince anyone how they should vote.”
And so the mild-mannered control group slid into the presidential election, a third way shuffling itself to middle ground. If a candidate enters a race and no one hears it, does he make a sound?