In Making Third Party Run, Gary Johnson Errs

Among all of the priceless scenes from the Star Trek film series, perhaps none is as emotionally rousing as one from Star Trek: First Contact. In it, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) has just received orders from his commanding officer to retreat in the face of a ruthless enemy (the Borg). Discussing the orders with a counterpart, Picard loses his temper and delivers the following gem:

“No! I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We’ve made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And I will make them pay for what they’ve done.”

One can sense similar emotions behind former governor Gary Johnson’s decision to leave the GOP in hopes of gaining the nomination of the Libertarian Party. In the face of unrelenting enemies (the debt crisis and liberty-imperiling government overreach), Johnson’s former allies have essentially told him to “calm down”. His ambitious plans, among them, to trim 43% of federal spending, are ridiculed by the party elite. Johnson gains little support in his presidential bid, and like Picard, is so enraged that he decides to forge ahead on his own.

Ultimately, this could be a fatal mistake for Governor Johnson’s political career. Real life, alas, is not Hollywood. The righteousness of one’s cause does not determine success or failure. Reality, and all of its unfortunate constraints, do.

To be certain, Republicans royally screwed Johnson in failing to provide any support to him. Johnson won, and was reelected to, the governorship of a liberal state (New Mexico). He slashed spending, vetoed over 750 bills, and left office with high approval marks. Johnson burnished the GOP’s reputation among independent and democratic-leaning voters in a swing state, all without much of a resource commitment from national Republican organizations such as the RNC or RGA.

Furthermore, there are several dynamics at play that would seem to make a GOP-for-Johnson push seem worthwhile. The current president (and his dismal approval ratings) had no executive office experience before serving; Johnson spent eight years running a state. Private sector firms are hiring at a glacial pace, and voters are most concerned with jobs; Johnson started and expanded his own successful business. Depending on the poll, the deficit ranges anywhere from the fourth to second most important issue; Johnson slashed debt in New Mexico and presented a detailed plan for how to do so at a national level. The GOP is often viewed as old and stodgy, out of touch with young voters; Johnson is energetic and connects with the youth vote (which is increasingly libertarian).

By making a third party run, Johnson likely hopes to achieve two main goals: have his message of individual liberty/free markets heard, and influence his less brave Republican (former) colleagues from without. These strategies are the means by which his ultimate end, shrinking federal government, would be achieved. This strategy will likely fail.

The messaging piece shows some promise. If he wins the Libertarian nomination, Johnson may earn a spot at debate stages opposite Obama and the Republican nominee, and he could thrive engaging in direct debates. Johnson is more competent with policy than Romney or Obama, and has more budget-cutting credentials than anyone. However, another distinct possibility is that a social moderate (Romney or Hunstman) emerges from the GOP nomination process. This would likely undercut support for a third party run, meaning Johnson may not even hit polling thresholds to participate in the debates.

Even if Governor Johnson garners enough support to appear at presidential debates, the influence he will exert on the Republican Party will likely be minimal. Why? Because if he does reach such a critical mass of popularity, he will become the enemy. There are plenty of socially liberal Republicans; one could argue there are no Democrats in favor of cutting the federal budget in half. In other words, the bulk of Johnson voters in a presidential election would probably otherwise vote Republican. Even if Johnson were to do nothing but attract 10% of votes from his home state (he currently is polling at 24% in New Mexico), he could single handedly deliver the election to Obama. Conservative organizations will realize this and attack him mercilessly. Attack ads, fueled by the hundreds of millions of dollars Republican super PAC’s and campaigns plan on spending this election cycle, work well; only a small fraction of this budget could eviscerate Johnson and make him a non-factor.

Yet nothing could more diminish Johnson’s influence or undercut his ultimate goal than an Obama reelection. The economy is all but certain to recover in the next four years due to its cyclical nature; the occupant of the White House, and their party, will take credit for it. This would allow Democrats to argue that their $1.2 trillion+ in stimulus measures and bailouts worked, and would further cement a flawed philosophy of excessive taxation and unrestrained spending in Washington. Additionally, the largest entitlement program of our generation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), would become entrenched with other unsustainable programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Governor Johnson would have been better off dropping from the race entirely and lending support to Ron Paul. Paul may have no shot of winning the nomination, but he has the money and support to stay relevant in the Republican debates at least through Super Tuesday. Johnson could have spent time acting as a Paul surrogate, supporting him on campaign stops and cable news shows. This would have spread the message of liberty to more people than Johnson could ever hope to reach on his own, and without the risk of helping Obama’s reelection chances.

Picard, living in a fictional era of Klingons and warp drives, was rewarded for acting on his anger. Johnson, living in an era of (far scarier) Pelosis and Priuses, will not be.

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