I’m upset with Gary Johnson because he is running as a Libertarian, so I hold him to a higher standard than other candidates. But I realize I’m possibly being too hard on the guy, so when David R. Henderson recently singled out Johnson’s August 28 interview with Chris Wallace as his best performance yet, I decided to do an experiment.
Specifically, I decided that I would jot down each policy issue as it came up, and then ask: (a) Did Gary Johnson give the standard libertarian answer on it (if applicable); and (b) Did Johnson explain why this was the libertarian position, to educate the viewers? So I’ll embed the video below, and then underneath will be my scoring.
Immigration: I know this too is a tricky topic, but for somebody like Gary Johnson I’m fine if he says (as he does in the interview) that the libertarian position is to allow anybody to come here and work. However, when he elaborates, he says immigrants are just taking the jobs that Americans don’t want. That’s not really a good argument, because there aren’t a fixed number of jobs and whether native workers take them depends on the wage rate, which of course varies based on (illegal) immigration. (It would be more accurate to say, “Have you seen the Mexican guys busting their a**es on lawns when it’s 100 degrees out? Do the teenagers in your cul de sac want to work like that?”)
(Not a huge deal, but start at the 4:00 mark and you’ll see Johnson try to “get real” and he says, “Look, Hillary or Clinton, isn’t the polarization in Congress going to be greater than ever?” That’s a flub, he was trying to say TRUMP or Clinton, or Hillary or Trump, not “Hillary or Clinton.”)
Cut Spending 20%: Wallace said this was Johnson’s position, which is great if true, but Johnson didn’t talk about it, because Wallace lumped it in with the elimination of various government agencies (next item).
Eliminating Federal Agencies: Wallace said that Johnson wanted to eliminate the IRS, Commerce Dept., Department of Education, DEA, and NSA. So this is great, and epitomizes my problem with Johnson. I heard Wallace list these items, and I thought, “OK, I have been too hard on Johnson and too eager to argue with Scott Sumner. If this is the baseline, that Johnson is calling for this stuff, then yeah that’s so hardcore I gotta cut the guy some slack, that takes guts to call for abolishing the IRS and NSA.”
So guess what happened? The first thing Johnson does is try to clarify that he did NOT want to eliminate all of those agencies. Wallace says, “It’s on your website,” and Johnson says, “Not on my website, you might read that on somebody else’s website.” (Note these aren’t exact quotes, but close.) Johnson clarifies which agencies he DOES want to eliminate. You ready? Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and he wants to roll the Dept. of Homeland Security back into the FBI. Nothing about the IRS or the NSA, the two that made me initially cut him some slack for being hardcore. He doesn’t even want to eliminate the DEA at first, even though that’s his signature issue. (If you guys think I misunderstood him, tell me in the comments and I’ll fix. But I’m pretty sure that’s what he clarified as his position.)
Replace Personal Income Tax and Corporate Income Tax with National Sales Tax: Sure, if we could choose between an income tax and a sales tax, I’d far prefer the latter. But I actually would not support a deal like this in practice, because I would fear that it would simply bring the national sales tax in, and we’d eventually have the income taxes again down the road. So I’m not even willing to give Johnson credit for having this position.
But then when it comes to selling the position (and using the opportunity to educate Americans about libertarian principles), again it was a train wreck. Wallace asks a tough question about this proposal being very regressive, and Johnson says, “Again, Weld and I aren’t running for dictator or king.” (This was the second time he’d said this during the interview.) So Wallace crushes him by replying, “Now wait a minute. When you say you aren’t running for dictator, it means we shouldn’t take your policies seriously, because you know they won’t get through Congress.” And yes, that’s exactly what Johnson WAS doing with that phrase.
Foreign Policy: He was good on agreeing with Wallace that Johnson was a non-interventionist and thought Obama’s policies had had unintended consequences. But when Wallace brought up ISIS, Johnson’s first response was to say we should contain ISIS, and that, “Think of them as sands through the hourglass, we’re going to see the sands through the hourglass.” I barely understand what that it supposed to mean. Anyway, Wallace keeps hitting him, saying ISIS wasn’t contained because of the attacks in Belgium, etc. Johnson says these were ISIS-inspired, and asks whether ISIS itself was carrying out these attacks directly. Wallace says, “Well in the case of France they’d seem to, yes.” (Crushing.)
Johnson wisely realizes he is losing this, so he pivots and says that military personnel support him over the other candidates. From this point forward, I admit he did a good job, speaking passionately (he actually looked angry) and citing some specifics on Obama/Clinton policies, without tripping over his words. I am assuming this is the segment that David R. Henderson liked.
(To give more specific praise: Johnson was really good on why eliminating ISIS was a fool’s errand, and his pivot to North Korea was good. I also liked that he wanted to reach out diplomatically to Russia and China.)
Drugs: Then, at the very end, Wallace brought up something I didn’t realize. Johnson had been the CEO of a company that sold cannabis. I knew people had called him a “pot entrepreneur” but I thought it was just a joke about his habits.
So, I can pull a Seinfeld and say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but I thought the one saving virtue of Johnson is that he was an accomplished governor and would show America that the Libertarian Party was serious, and not a freakshow. Well…
In conclusion, with the exception of maybe 2 minutes on foreign policy and then a brief statement of his view on marijuana legalization, this 11 minute interview was a train wreck. I am not saying this to be funny, I am dead serious: If we were back in college and were going to pick somebody to represent libertarians in a debate for the student body, I would have vehemently objected if someone who had given this 11-minute performance wanted to be the guy. I would have thought surely out of the 20 people in our group of hardcore libertarians, we could find a better representative of our perspective. And remember, this is the interview that David said is the best he’d seen yet from Johnson.
UPDATE: Oh! I forgot to mention. When Johnson was trying to sell his tax reform plan to Wallace, in order to reassure him that it wouldn’t be too regressive, Johnson said that his “Fair tax” would involve sending a “pre-bate” to every American. In other words, the Libertarian candidate’s tax reform plan would mean that literally every single tax-paying American would get a check from the federal government. (David at the end of his EconLog post also noted that that aspect of Johnson’s proposal was really problematic.)
So Johnson is already admitting his plan is not going to go through in its current form; why not ask for something really nice?