The unpopularity of the two presumptive nominees this November has left many voters looking for alternatives. Currently, the alternative candidate receiving the most support is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the recently chosen nominee of the Libertarian Party. Recent polls show Johnson receiving double-digit numbers in three-way mock elections with Clinton and Trump.
Johnson believes that he has a good chance of winning over a large swath of the electorate. “I’m trying to appeal to the majority of Americans whom I think are libertarian” he said on CNN after winning the nomination. “And libertarian, with a broad brush stroke,” he added: “fiscally conservative, socially-accepting liberal.”
Even if many Americans do not self-identify as libertarians, they may be drawn to some libertarian views on the issues. Some of Johnson’s positions are certainly popular: he wants to lower taxes drastically, for instance, and to legalize marijuana nationwide (Johnson recently resigned from his position as CEO of a marijuana marketing firm).
But since the nomination of Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, a number of libertarians have questioned whether the former Republican governors are libertarians at all, citing both their political records and recent statements.
Both governors, for instance, saw state spending increase during their tenures.
At the beginning of Johnson’s tenure in 1995, the budget was $4.4 billion – a figure that jumped to $7.7 billion by the time he left office in 2003.
Johnson’s defenders note that there was often little he could do to control spending: some came in the form of federal dollars to pay for health care and education, and Johnson had to work with a Democratic legislature each year of his two terms in office. Johnson also lowered taxes in the state and regularly vetoed budgets he deemed excessive (having deemed 750 bills in total, Johnson earned the nicknames “Governor Veto” and “Veto Johnson”).
Yet his critics note that at times, Johnson strayed from libertarian orthodoxy. While in office, he subsidized the film industry to attract moviemakers to the state (a governmental intervention into the market that is anathema to libertarians), and when he left office, the debt had increased from $1.8 billion to $4.6 billion (the Libertarian Party’s platform from 2014 opposes government debt because it “burdens future generations without their consent”).
Bill Weld too has been criticized by libertarians for his political record while governor of Massachusetts between 1991 and 1997.
Campaigning on cutting $1 billion of state spending and pledging during his inaugural address to oversee the administration of an “entrepreneurial government,” Weld’s first year in office was the only one in which spending did not increase. A year after his inauguration, Weld proposed adding $1 billion in spending, and thereafter, spending continued to grow: between fiscal years 1992 and 1996, spending increased from $13.4 billion to $16.8 billion.
Weld, of course, also had to collaborate with a Democratic legislature. As a “conflict averse” governor, Weld often left high-level officials to manage their own domains without much interference (thus leaving much of the state Leviathan intact), but he also pushed through some libertarian-style reforms. He turned prison inmate health care and highway maintenance over to the private sector, for instance, which resulted in reduced expenditures and improved service.
But Weld also expanded the government’s reach beyond the usual libertarian limits. In education, for instance (which the LP platform declares is “best provided by the free market”), Weld harbored an ambition to create “a public university on a par with Michigan and California,” and during his tenure, state spending on the state college system grew by nearly 25 percent.
Like Johnson, Weld also supported the use of government subsidies – in his case, to stimulate the biotech and telecommunications industries, justifying these outlays as legitimate corrections of “market failure.”
Johnson and Weld are also being criticized for their stances on a variety of social issues. On the issue of religious liberty, Johnson has said that a baker should have to serve a gay couple even if doing so trespasses on the baker’s religious beliefs, and Weld is still regarded with some suspicion related to Second Amendment rights because of gun control measures he proposed as governor in the 1990s, including a ban on assault weapons and restrictions on handgun purchases.
Both have also taken stances on campaign finance that rankle the party’s base. In 2012, as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, Johnson encouraged voters to support him so that he could at least garner 5 percent of the vote – enough to qualify for public funding for the next election cycle (the party platform calls for “an end to any tax-financed subsidies to candidates or parties”). And Weld, contrary to libertarian orthodoxy, has stated support for “a complete ban on soft money…and a ceiling on the amount of money that can be spent on a given race.”
Despite LP members’ disappointment with the selection of the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees, it is hard to imagine them finding a candidate closer to their views. And for the general electorate, their independence of mind and record of compromise and bipartisanship may be enough to persuade voters to back Johnson and Weld this election.