The Libertarian Party had one of its most high-profile tests in its history on Wednesday night when both members of its 2016 presidential ticket answered questions during a town hall aired on CNN. They might want to ask for a makeup exam.
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the party’s nominee for president, and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, its pick for vice president, fielded queries on issues ranging from taxes to terrorism to legalizing drugs. The results were mixed.
The fact that Johnson and his running mate were able to secure an hour of prime time on CNN is a victory in itself and evidence that interest in the party is great enough that he will likely surpass his 2012 election performance, when he secured roughly 1% of the popular vote.
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But given all the obstacles that third party presidential nominees face, Johnson needed to take the opportunity to wow the American public with a convincing vision of how the country would operate differently under a Libertarian president. And by this measure, Johnson failed.
Johnson often hesitates to make a full-throated endorsement of the libertarian vision of significantly smaller government, and on Wednesday he offered more of the same. When asked whether he would replace Obamacare as president, Johnson hedged, saying that he was running for president, and not Congress. “If the GOP bill lowers costs and improves care, I’ll sign it,” Johnson said.
That’s all well and good, but when people vote for a president, they are also voting for a vision for America. Johnson’s answer didn’t leave viewers with much of an impression of what kind of health care system they would be supporting when they pull the lever for Johnson.
In an interview with Fortune last week, Johnson was coy when asked about how he would both eliminate the corporate income tax and present a balanced budget to Congress as his “first major act,” something he promises to do on his campaign website. That will involve cutting hundreds of billions in spending, but he declined to be specific about what he would cut, arguing once again that he was running for president and that Congress is responsible for passing legislation.
That may be true, and it may be an answer that conforms to libertarian principles of limited executive power, but it doesn’t give the American public a strong sense of what Johnson would fight for as president.
Presidents don’t just sign or veto bills. They also lobby Congress, twist arms, and lead public relations pushes for major reforms. Wedensday’s town hall didn’t paint a clear picture of how Johnson would leverage the bully pulpit to shape policy.
The waters were further muddied by the fact that Johnson and his running mate Weld at times gave contradictory answers. When discussing taxes, Johnson argued that if he “could wave a magic wand,” he would eliminate income taxes altogether and move the country to a system where the government is financed by a single sales tax. “Think about how this country would be like without the IRS,” Johnson urged the crowd.
Seconds later, Bill Weld contradicted his running mate, saying that we wouldn’t need to go so far as to abolish the IRS. Well, which is it?
All is not lost for the libertarians this year. They are going up against the two most unpopular major party nominees in recent history. And the unorthodox tactics Donald Trump’s campaign leaves a lot of room for Johnson to grab support from Republican voters, including free market fundamentalists and the business community. But Johnson can’t afford to let another opportunity to clearly explain his vision to a national audience slip away.