Every four years, partisans on both sides of the political aisle insist that “this is the most important election of our lifetimes!” The wailing and gnashing of teeth is amusing, enlightening, and almost always wrong.
This year, with our nation locked in media-driven political overdrive, we’re bombarded with pronouncements that one or the other of the major party candidates will inevitably bring about the utter downfall of our 227-year old Republic.
It is, once again, “the most important election of our lifetimes!” Indeed, it certainly feels like the most pivotal Presidential election year of the ten that have occurred in my lifetime.
In truth, though, such pronouncements are especially notable precisely because of how little is truly at stake in this year’s general election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
When you’ve completed your double-take at that last sentence, consider this:
- Regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins in November, we will have a President who has aggressively called for the growth of executive power.
- Regardless of who wins, we will have a President who was foisted on the rank-and-file of his or her political party by the party’s power-brokers, over the objections of large swathes of the party faithful.
- We will have a President who has enthusiastically championed the federal government as the ideal solution to a variety of social ills.
- We will have a President who has at various times twisted, manipulated, and outright broken the law, and who has suffered no meaningful consequence for doing so.
- We will have a President who has proven relentlessly divisive, wielding the bully pulpit and aggravating for the use of government’s coercive power to silence political dissent.
- We will have a President who calls for compassion to be shown to favored groups, but who shows none to those who are out of favor.
- We will have a President who believes that membership in a particular demographic group makes one superior to those who are not members of the group.
- We will have a President who is an explicit enemy of free trade and other basic tenets of free market economics.
- We will have a President with a history of demonstrated incompetence in foreign policy.
- We will have a President who campaigned on politicizing the Supreme Court to an even greater extent than it already is.
- We will have a President who is the least popular and most intensely disliked candidate ever nominated by his or her party in the history of public opinion polling.
- We will have a President with a long history of all-but-pathological lying.
- We will have a President who begins his or her administration as the most unpopular person ever to take the office, in the entire time span during which such things have been measured.
Indeed, it seems – to me at least – that despite the pivotal nature of this election, very, very little hinges on the actual, final result between the two major party candidates.
There are no perfect candidates. I can count the number of times I’ve cast a vote for a candidate with whom I agreed 100% of the time on one hand – with five fingers to spare. Nearly every election comes down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.
That’s not the case this year – not for me. This is not about the lesser of two evils. It is simply a choice between two evils.
I said, long before the end of this ridiculous GOP primary season, that I could in good conscience vote for any of the approximately seventy-four Republican candidates who ran (give or take a few dozen) . . . with the exception of Donald Trump. Nothing he has said or done in the intervening months has changed my mind, and if anything he solidifies that determination every time he speaks. I was #NeverTrump long before it got its own hashtag.
I’ve been #NeverHillary for far longer – ever since she ran for the Senate in 2000 and it became clear that she was positioning herself for an eventual run (or several) at the White House by very carefully cultivating a persona that was far more moderate than her previous actions indicated. Like Trump, she has reversed course repeatedly on several issues as the political winds shifted, and like Trump, each time she lands on a new position she reinforces my initial opinion of her.
As I put it to one friend on Facebook recently: Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, he makes me believe I’m duty-bound to vote for Hillary; every time Hillary Clinton opens her mouth, she makes be believe I’m duty-bound to vote for Trump.
I am open to learning that I am deeply and dreadfully wrong about either of them. I have, in fact, had friends who are partisans of both candidates attempt to persuade me that I am. Thus far, I am not convinced.
Not Choosing is Making a Choice
What to do, then? I could simply stay home – could ruthlessly suppress the part of me that cares deeply about federal politics and policy, and has spent the past 20+ years reading, writing, studying, learning, and participating in (on the periphery) the political game.
I could leave the top line blank and simply vote down-ticket for candidates whom – unlike the two competitors for the highest office on the ballot – I can support in good conscience.
I could – here in Virginia, at least – write in the name of someone whose chances of winning are literally nonexistent.
The problem with any of these approaches is outlined well by political blogger Ace of Spades:
“We have difficult choices to make. And difficult choices should be treated as what they are — difficult, hard choices requiring moral seriousness and rigorous cost-benefit analysis. They should not be made –artificially and falsely — into easy-breezy decisions where one just says ‘I will do everything I can to make sure Trump is defeated, and I shall never give a thought to the prospect of a Hillary presidency, and I should never allow my shoulders to feel the burden of the consequences of the choice I am making.'”
Ace argues that those who agitate for #NeverTrump share moral culpability for the result of a Clinton win (and, implicitly, vice versa). I have tried to convince myself otherwise, but when it comes down to it, he’s right. The reason I cannot vote for Trump or Hillary is at its heart a moral one: I refuse to be responsible for the anticipated results of a Trump OR a Clinton Presidency. The point Ace (as a very reluctant Trump supporter) makes is in fact the mirror image of the point my Hillary-supporting friends argue: Refusing to make a choice is itself a choice. By diligently undermining Trump in pointing out his many and varied flaws, I am strengthening Hillary. By diligently undermining Hillary in pointing out her many and varied flaws, I am strengthening Trump.
Partisans of either side insist that “staying home is a vote for Hillary” or that “staying home is a vote for Trump.” That’s putting it too strongly, but it is true that, in a system dependent on the consent of the governed, a throwaway vote amounts to consenting to be governed by whomever ends up winning. Making no choice at all is its own choice.
Being #NeverTrump #NeverHillary, without a realistic alternative is not to be equally opposed to both possible outcomes . . . it is to be equally sanguine about them. I, for one, am not. I do not consent.
That being the case, I am left with three alternatives:
- Find a way to reconcile myself to the prospect of a Donald Trump Presidency, and do what I can to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning.
- Find a way to reconcile myself to the prospect of a Hillary Clinton Presidency, and do what I can to prevent Donald Trump from winning.
- Find some alternative scenario that is even remotely possible, and do what I can to make that happen.
None of those three alternatives will countenance staying home and abstaining. None of them will countenance supporting only down-ballot races and leaving the top line blank. None of them will countenance a throwaway write-in vote.
I Choose Option 3
Ace is right: “Adults accept the responsibility for their choices.” It is this very belief in the importance of personal responsibility that has prompted me to vote Republican nearly every time I’ve entered a voting booth: Democrats abandoned the notion of personal responsibility long ago. Part of the reason that I cannot now vote for Donald Trump is that, in Trump’s GOP, Republicans have joined them there.
This, then, is my choice: There is one lone alternative to opposing Trump (thereby supporting Hillary), or opposing Hillary (thereby supporting Trump). He is not the ideal candidate. He is not the candidate in the race with whom I most often agree. But he is the candidate for whom I will cast my vote, and will urge others to do likewise.
His name is Gary Johnson.
I can hear the objections marshaling themselves already: “What about other third-party candidates?” “He’s horrible on the issues!” “He’s boring and uncharismatic and a lousy campaigner!” “He doesn’t stand a chance!” “Just vote down-ballot and hope for divided government!” or “The Supreme Court is too important to risk for a generation!”
Let’s take each of these in turn:
As I noted above, a write-in vote or a vote for someone with no chance at all of having a real impact is tantamount to not voting at all. It’s voting for whomever wins, while hiding behind the anonymous deniability of not actually casting a vote for that person.
The fact is, both major parties parties have amply demonstrated that they are not worth your support. Both parties have become so tribal that their main reason for their existence is not to govern, but to keep the other team from doing so!
There’s a bit of strategy here, but anything that weakens the duopoly on political power shared by the party structures of the RNC and DNC is a worthy goal with the potential to usher in genuine, long-term change. In pursuit of that goal, nobody else is in a position to have the impact Johnson can. That’s because the only ways to have a genuine impact are to:
- reach 15% in a national poll and make it onto the debate stage,
- prevent the two major party candidates from reaching a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the election into the House of Representatives, and/or
- garner enough support now that it allows an alternative party structure to impact future elections down the road.
Gary Johnson is the only person with a reasonable shot at accomplishing any of the above.
There are two other candidates with a potentially non-zero chance to impact the race: Jill Stein and Darrell Castle. Castle – the Constitution Party nominee – I agree with more often than most of the other candidates . . . probably more than with Johnson himself. Stein – the Green Party nominee – I almost never agree with at all. In the final analysis, though, I believe either of them would be preferable to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
But either of them have their own problems in terms of achieving the objectives above. Castle – though he seems to be the sort of genuine, limited-government, classical liberal, constitutional conservative that I would normally support, is burdened with his party’s history of nominating big-government “conservatives” who focus on coercive policies on social issues to the exclusion of nearly everything else. He is also burdened by the fact that most people have never heard of him. I’m far more aware than the average voter, and tend to be one of the places even my well-informed friends go to for political information and analysis . . . and when I started writing this piece, I had to look up who the Constitution Party was running this year just to find out his name. That’s not a good sign for Mr. Castle.
Stein has less of a “Jill who??” problem than Castle does, but she is still a niche candidate with an intentionally narrow appeal. The most modest of the objectives I outlined above – getting on the debate stage – requires 15% in a national poll. Johnson has polled in the double-digits more than once, and as high as 13%. Stein’s best numbers are less than half of that, and Castle’s are a rounding error. Johnson is the only one with a shot at the debate stage – that extra 2% is far from insurmountable – and we saw several times in the GOP primary how much of a difference getting on that stage can make: Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz both used sterling debate performances to vault from the pack of “also-rans” into the top tier (if temporarily so, in Fiorina’s case). It’s an open question whether Gary Johnson can accomplish the same thing if he takes the stage against Clinton and Trump, but it’s no question at all that Castle and Stein cannot.
Johnson is also the only candidate with a chance (albeit a miniscule one) of obtaining the all-important electoral votes necessary to deny both Trump and Clinton an electoral majority, and then being selected by the House of Representatives as an alternative under the process outlined in the 12th Amendment. He doesn’t have to win in the Electoral College. He just has to prevent anybody else from winning. There is a possibility – albeit a slim one – that Gary Johnson can accomplish that. Nobody else can.
Let’s imagine that Darrell Castle catches on as a place for disaffected #NeverTrumpers to park their votes. The problem then becomes the fact that Democrats currently have an institutional advantage in the electoral college. Castle – a niche candidate to the right of both major parties – would have to pull at least some votes, not from Trump’s camp, but from Clinton’s. If you can envision a situation in which that happens, you are a far more creative political thinker than I am. Even in Castle’s best case scenario, he somehow wins enough hearts and minds to translate into an electoral vote or two . . . in say, Utah. Hillary scores an easy layup in the Electoral College. Game Over.
Stein has it a bit better in that she pulls votes from Clinton, making it easier for her to have an impact on the Electoral College than it would be for Castle (if only theoretically). But that’s where Stein’s best-case scenario ends. She wins a blue state, keeps both Hillary and Trump under 270, and then . . . gets destroyed in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, where the 12th Amendment dictates that each state votes as a bloc, where a majority of state delegations are controlled by the GOP, and where – in our hypothetical – they throw the election to Trump anyway.
Johnson has taken a lot of heat from Republicans for being a former Republican whose rhetoric often sounds like a Democrat’s. But that’s precisely his advantage here. He’s the only person running who can appeal to disaffected Sanders supporters . . . conceivably enough to pull an electoral vote or two from Clinton . . . while also potentially appealing to enough of the #NeverTrump contingent in Congress to serve as a “third way” alternative should the election end up in their hands.
I’m not saying this is a likely scenario. In fact, I believe it’s highly unlikely. But it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility, the way it is for Stein, Castle, or any other candidate or write-in.
Perhaps most importantly, as a centrist, Johnson is the only third-party candidate capable of building a big enough tent to challenge the two major parties in the long term. The Libertarian Party as a whole has demonstrated its unwillingness to behave as a serious party as recently as its own convention two months ago. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that being taken seriously as an alternative to the two major parties – as is happening more and more lately – will prompt the party to step up . . . in future cycles if not here and now.
For the time being, the just-concluded GOP convention and the tranche of leaked DNC emails over the weekend have demonstrated quite clearly that American politics does not have a “serious party” at the moment – left, right, or otherwise. For better or worse, there is nobody better suited to filling that gap than the Libertarians. This is their mission, should they choose to accept it.
Johnson and Weld are horrible on the issues
First off, let’s dispense with the mistaken notion that William Weld matters even the tiniest bit. Per the 12th Amendment, when an election is thrown to the House of Representatives, they may choose the President from among the top three electoral vote recipients. Meanwhile, the Vice President is selected by the Senate from among the top two candidates. Weld’s only chance to become Vice President is if the Libertarian ticket obtains more electoral votes than either the Democratic or the Republican ticket. The chance of that happening is roughly equal to the odds that all of those “Mickey Mouse” write-ins will usher in our first “rodents’ rights” Presidency.
In the end, an election that gets thrown to the House would likely wind up with a Vice President of the same party as the one that wins control of the Senate (since it’s the new Congress that votes, rather than the current Congress.) Senate control being very much in doubt at this point, I’m not even going to speculate about which of the already unlikely alternatives of Johnson/Pence or Johnson/Kaine is less likely. Frankly, I’d happily take either one over Trump/Pence or Clinton/Kaine any day of the week!
As for Johnson, a number of right-leaning libertarians have lamented the fact that he sounds more interested in wooing MSNBC-watchers than #NeverTrumpers. But as I noted above, strategically, that’s exactly what he needs to be doing.
He has to pull more electoral votes from Clinton than he pulls from Trump, or she wins. End of story.
And let’s look at those issues. The two that come up most frequently are his rather un-libertarian eagerness to force private business owners to violate their consciences where support for same-sex marriage is concerned, and his self-described pro-choice views on abortion. As to the first, I agree with his critics that his views are highly problematic, but let’s be honest. No matter what happens, we are guaranteed a President who feels exactly the same as Johnson does (given that both Trump and Clinton are fully aligned with him here) and if we hang our hats on this one issue at the expense of all the rest, we will inevitably wind up with someone who is notably worse on other issues. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Johnson is the worst candidate in the race except for all the other ones.
As to abortion, he describes himself as pro-choice, but his views are well to the right of Clinton, and probably Trump as well (though who knows what he thinks this week?) Johnson favors overturning Roe v. Wade and letting the issue devolve to state and legislative control. At the state level he favors post-viability restrictions on abortion, and he signed a parental notification law as Governor of New Mexico. In short, any impact he would or could have on abortion as President would be to incrementally nudge abortion laws to the right of where they are now . . . which is precisely the level of impact a fully pro-life President could expect to have in today’s legal climate.
He’s boring and uncharismatic and a lousy campaigner!
All true . . . and if there was ever an election in the era of modern media in which a boring, uncharismatic guy who is a lousy campaigner had the chance to make his mark on a Presidential election, this is it! If the choice is between a boring and uncharismatic guy, and two slicker and more polished candidates who also happen to be two of the most hated, most corrupt individuals ever to seek the office, I’ll take boring and uncharismatic every. single. time.
He doesn’t stand a chance.
Correction: He doesn’t stand much of a chance. Johnson’s odds of success at any of the three objectives I outlined above – making the debate stage, throwing the election to the House (and winning there), or breaking the major-party stranglehold on federal elections – are slim. But they are not none. I love Ben Sasse, but writing in his name on my ballot is a vote for the winner. I love Tim Scott, but writing in his name on my ballot is a vote for the winner. Unlike some of my fellow #NeverTrumpers, I don’t loathe Ted Cruz, but as of the conclusion of his convention speech, he has made his mark on this cycle. At this point, writing in his name on my ballot is a vote for the winner. Those who write in these or other random people (or random cartoon characters) are throwing away their votes and are, in the long run, actively abetting whoever comes out on top in November.
Supporting someone whose chances are nil is abstaining. It’s showing up to one of the most important votes of your life and voting “Present.” It’s supporting the winning candidate, while maintaining just enough anonymity and deniability and self-congratulation to pretend that you didn’t.
Supporting someone whose chances are slim, but not none . . . supporting someone with a concrete set of at least hypothetically achievable goals in mind . . . is supporting an ever-so-incremental move toward genuine change. It is the difference between feeling peeved that things have reached this point, and translating that feeling into genuine action rather than simple reaction.
It’s almost certain that we will end up with only Clinton and Trump on the debate stage. It’s almost certain that Clinton or Trump will be President come inauguration day. It’s almost certain that the Democrats and Republicans will remain the only two viable national parties for the foreseeable future.
Almost . . . but not entirely certain. Johnson’s path to any of these three objectives is razor-thin, but it is a path nonetheless. And even the most modest of these three outcomes – shaking things up by getting a third podium on the debate stage – is worth more to me than shaking my fist at the sky as I cast a worthless protest vote.
The Futility of Divided Government
Divided government – in which one party controls the White House and the other controls one or both Houses of Congress – may (or may not) work well in theory, but it does not work in practice. President Bush faced a hostile Congress for nearly half his Presidency. President Obama has faced one for 3/4 of his. Anyone who thinks either example serves as a demonstration that Congress is an effective check on executive authority hasn’t been paying attention. The wide deference paid by the courts to the Executive Branch’s interpretation of its own authority, placed in the hands of an executive who is willing to go around Congress to expand that executive authority and who allows the Executive Branch to police its own wrongdoing rather than allowing independent, outside accountability, is a recipe for Congressional irrelevance. That’s not speculation, it’s exactly what we’ve seen in the incremental expansion of executive power over the past two decades. Giving executive power to a would-be despot who refuses to be held accountable to anyone but him- or herself, and then expecting our feckless Congress to hold that person accountable, is a fool’s errand.
About the Supreme Court
The last gasp of the #NeverHillary crowd, in particular, is that we can’t afford to undermine Trump because that would throw the election Clinton’s way and result in a left-leaning Supreme Court for the next generation. To that objection I have three responses:
1) As noted above, the main goal here isn’t to undermine Trump. It’s primarily to undermine Hillary, and ALSO to undermine Trump, enough that both of them fail to score a majority in the Electoral College.
2) There is scant evidence that Trump’s picks would be any better. Oh, sure, he’s provided a list of potential justices that look good on paper . . . but he has proven less than committed to that list (which should surprise precisely no on, given the extent to which he has ever firmly held himself to any commitment, ever). On the other hand, he has provided plenty of evidence that he would eagerly tamper with the independence of the judiciary for his own personal gain, given the opportunity. So by all means, let’s give him three or four chances to do so at the very highest levels, shall we?
3) The notion of an overwhelming Democrat-appointed majority on the Supreme Court is a scary prospect . . . but it shouldn’t be. The very fact that this notion is so frightening is a symptom of the fact that the court has become so overtly politicized and so overwhelmingly powerful that Presidential elections have become, in no small part, shadow-elections for the Supreme Court justices who ultimately determine that the law of the land is whatever they want it to be on any given day.
Part of what makes Donald Trump so unpalatable to many Republicans is the fact that standing up for smaller, more streamlined, more efficient, more cost-effective government used to be the defining characteristic of a Republican. From that perspective Trump is very literally a “Republican In Name Only.” His position – and the position of far, far too many Republicans now in Congress – is that bigger, more intrusive government is fine and dandy as long as Republicans are the ones helming the ship of state.
But in parallel, we’ve come to think of the Supreme Court the same way – an overtly political Supreme Court is fine and dandy as long as our party is the one that controls a majority.
It’s time to undermine that outsized influence – and the founders saw to it that Congress has plenty of tools well-suited for doing so. They can impeach justices for misbehavior (and can define that misbehavior however they wish). They can control the court’s purse strings or reduce the number of justices who sit on the high court (either of which would make their current case-load untenable and would devolve more power to the district and appellate levels.) They can legislatively remove certain issues or policy areas from the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.
In short, the very fact that the Supreme Court is such a political football is part of the problem to begin with. Instead of kicking the football (or, like Charlie Brown, having it pulled out from under us by allegedly “conservative” Republican appointees like David Souter and Anthony Kennedy), we should be looking at ways to deflate it.
Again, we’re talking about the long game here. But we have no other choice, because in the short term things look grim indeed.
But while playing that long game – looking down the road to 2020 and laying the groundwork for a Ben Sasse, or a Ted Cruz, or a Scott Walker, or a Marco Rubio or whoever your candidate of choice might be – none of it will come of anything if, in the short term, we take our ball and walk off the field. At the start of what looked like a very promising campaign season, I had three things I was looking for in a candidate. I wanted someone with an extensive record as a successful executive, who was able to speak the language of limited government and free enterprise fluently rather than as a second language, and who was able to command enough of a following to be viable in the general election.
That candidate doesn’t exist. But Johnson – a successful two-term state governor with a record that rests primarily on tax and spending cuts and educational reforms – checks the first two boxes easily – far, far more easily than the two major party candidates (and, frankly, more easily than most of the GOP candidates who started out this primary season). And while his following is dwarfed by the major parties, it’s the largest alternative left, is growing every day, and most importantly, is the only one with even the slightest hope of making a genuine impact during the campaign, in the election itself, and beyond.