A case for Gary Johnson


“Be Libertarian with me for one election,” suggests Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in a recent advertisement. I’ve voted Libertarian in every election in which I’ve been eligible, so it’s no surprise that I’m doing so again this year. But my previous votes weren’t always enthusiastic. The party’s track record nominating candidates is decidedly mixed and I’ve gone along with some of their selections not out of any real support for the candidates, but only to sustain the party until they nominated someone stronger.

This year they did. Johnson, a successful two-term former governor of New Mexico, is the most credible candidate the Libertarian Party has ever offered. And given the dismal competition from the two major parties, his timing couldn’t be better.

I never had high hopes for Obama on economic matters but on a few areas, such as civil liberties, there was some expectation that he would be better than his predecessor (though even then there were warnings to the contrary). Instead, he’s expanded some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration. To give only a brief summary:

Extrajudicial assassination via drone, even of American citizens, is now a routine part of the presidency.

Indefinite detention without trial has been signed into law and federal attorneys continue to defend the power in court.

Despite initial promise on medical marijuana, the administration has ramped up the pace of armed raids on clinics operating legally under their states’ laws.

The administration has declined to bring any charges in cases of torture perpetrated by the CIA.

It goes with saying that Mitt Romney would be even worse on these issues. It’s difficult to know his true position on anything, but one thing is certain: He is no skeptic of state power. He’s hawkish on foreign policy, has no qualms using force to regulate personal behavior, and in the 2008 debates had this to say about indefinite detention without trial:

“I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.”

There’s not much to say in Romney’s favor on economics, either. His supposedly Ayn Rand-inspired running mate, intended to shore up his credentials, voted for TARP, auto bailouts, and Medicare Part D. Romney and Ryan likely offer to defenders of free markets what Obama offered to defenders of civil liberties: pleasing words followed by multiple stabs in the back.

Even by the usual low standards of presidential elections, the choices offered by the major parties this year are bleak. But unlike in past elections, the Libertarian Party has offered an alternative with legitimate credentials and appeal. A guy whom I think I could persuade some of my less explicitly libertarian friends to get behind. A guy whom I would actually be happy to see as president, if by some miracle he were to win.

Johnson, who governed as a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, has cross-party appeal that could siphon votes from both candidates. He’s an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, supports legalization of marijuana, calls for ending the War on Drugs and treating addiction as a medical issue, and recognizes an important role for government in protecting the natural environment from polluters.

On the American Civil Liberties Union’s candidate report card [PDF], Johnson scored higher than Obama and any of the Republicans. He endorses repeal of the Patriot Act, an end to indefinite detention without trial, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Johnson is a more credible opponent of economic cronyism than Romney and Ryan, criticizing the complexity of the current tax code and the incentives it creates for lobbying on behalf of special interests. He endorses free trade and expanded opportunities for legal immigration. He concluded his terms as governor with a budget surplus and vetoed more than 700 bills. Like Josh Barro, I think the drastic cuts he calls for are unnecessarily severe in the short-term and do him no favors appealing to a broader base. I’m also unpersuaded as of yet by his tax policy. However such changes would have to come from Congress, not the executive branch, which would enforce the moderation with which he actually governed.

Johnson winning the presidential race is obviously a long shot, but he needn’t win for his campaign to be worthwhile. Simply being allowed to participate in the presidential debates would dramatically alter their tone, which will otherwise be a race to the bottom on civil liberties, spending, and military intervention. The debate commission – closely tied to the major parties – excludes third party candidates polling under 15%, so for that reason alone it is worth supporting his campaign and raising awareness of it.

Polling suggests that with more awareness of his candidacy, Johnson could find more support. Voters have been fleeing affiliation with the major parties for decades. Poll analyses by the Cato Institute find that about 14% of voters fit a fairly strict definition of “libertarian.” Under a broader definition as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” more than 40% accept the label.

Nonetheless, convincing people to actually vote for a third party candidate is an uphill battle. There are two reasons I encourage them to do so, one practical and one principled.

First the practical reason: It’s extremely unlikely that either Romney or Obama will miss your vote. Even if this turns out to be a close race at the national level, the race for electoral votes in your state may not be. Oregon, where I now live, appears to be of little consequence in the national election. The conclusion from FiveThirtyEight:

[…] in over 99 percent of the model’s simulations, Oregon’s seven electoral votes prove either a given for a winning Mr. Obama or unneeded for a victorious Mr. Romney.

The pessimistic view of this is that Oregonians’ votes don’t matter. The optimistic view is that we are free to vote our conscience. Are you tired of voting for war, civil liberties abuses, and cronyism? Congratulations! You needn’t feel obliged to cast your lot with the lesser evil.

And that brings me to the principled reason to vote for Johnson. Politics necessitates compromise; rarely does one find a candidate that one agrees with on every issue. But there are some issues on which one should not compromise. Among these, I suggest, are imprisoning people without trial and overseeing a secret “kill list” of assassination targets.

This string of civil liberties abuses began under Bush but one thing you could say in Bush’s favor is that at least he inspired a vocal opposition. Obama has largely bought them off, cementing excessive executive powers and leaving them intact for the next Republican president, whomever he may be. Concerns about civil liberties that seemed vital under Bush have been erased from the Democratic platform now that the party is in power.

There’s a very good discussion of this recently between law professor Jonathan Turley and actor John Cusack. (John Cusack, who knew?) It’s long but I highly recommend it. Here’s one exchange:

CUSACK: Yeah, yeah. And so then it gets down to the question, “Well, are you going to vote for Obama?” And I say, “Well, I don’t really know. I couldn’t really vote for Hillary Clinton because of her Iraq War vote.” Because I felt like that was a line, a Rubicon line –

TURLEY: Right.

CUSACK: — a Rubicon line that I couldn’t cross, right? I don’t know how to bring myself to vote for a constitutional law professor, or even a constitutional realist, who throws away due process and claims the authority that the executive branch can assassinate American citizens. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it.

If you want to make a protest vote against Romney, go ahead, but I would think we’d be better putting our energies into local and state politics — occupy Wall Street and organizations and movements outside the system, not national politics, not personalities. Not stadium rock politics. Not brands. That’s the only thing I can think of. What would you say?

TURLEY: Well, the question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what’s left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System.”

CUSACK: Yeah, or that he did a good job with the auto bailout.

TURLEY: Right. I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes. We have to recognize that our political system is fundamentally broken, it’s unresponsive. Only 11 percent of the public supports Congress, and yet nothing is changing — and so the question becomes, how do you jumpstart that system? How do you create an alternative? What we have learned from past elections is that you don’t create an alternative by yielding to this false dichotomy that only reinforces their monopoly on power.

The big question of this election is not who whether Romney or Obama is marginally better than the other. The question is how to fight the abuses of power that have been fully embraced by both of them. Voting for Johnson is one small way to do so. Imagine if 5 million or 10 million people voted for a candidate running on a platform of civil liberties, ending the Drug War, non-interventionist foreign policy, and an end to cronyism. You don’t have to be a libertarian – you don’t even have to want Johnson to win — to think that this would have a beneficial long-term effect on policy as the major parties try to win those votes.

That will never happen if voters allow themselves to be held hostage by Romney and Obama. And, for once, a third party has offered a worthy alternative. This year the surest way for the constituency supporting civil liberties, economic freedom, and social toleration to express itself is with a good turnout for Gary Johnson.


Motorhome Diaries update

The guys have published the full account of their detainment and it reflects some pretty appalling treatment from the Jones County police, including being pepper sprayed, having their vehicle searched without consent, and being locked up without being read their rights, being informed of the charges against them, or allowed to contact help. Read it all here.


MHD crew arrested on the road

One of the surprise treats from my weekend family trip to Austin was crossing paths with my friends Jason and Pete from Motorhome Diaries, along with their new companion Adam. Together we had a great time crashing a Southwestern University frat party on Friday. (Personal discovery: I have a lot more fun at frat parties now than I did when I was actually in college.)

But it was only a matter of time before the RV of freedom hit a speed bump. All three have been arrested following a traffic stop that they documented with cameras and video cameras. The reasons for arrest in Jones County, Mississippi:

Adam Mueller – Disorderly Conduct and Disobeying an Officer
Pete Eyre – Possession of a Beer in a Dry County
Jason Talley – Disorderly Conduct, Disobeying, and Resisting Arrest

Obviously we don’t have the full story yet, but knowing these guys I’m going to guess that “disorderly conduct” is code for asserting their constitutional rights and not duly respecting the officers’ authoriteh. Pete was probably the calmest of them all, making possession of beer the only thing police could think to charge him with. (And speaking of which, it’s 2009! WTF is wrong with a county in which adults can get arrested for possession of beer?)

The guys are expected to be arraigned tomorrow. Hopefully they’ll get out soon and be able to report all the details. In the meantime, you might want to give them a little support at their PayPal link.

Previously: Pete videotaped an Arlington, VA officer illegally parking and was then trailed by that officer as he attempted to walk home.

Update: More details in the morning once the guys have their computers back. In the meantime, from @jdtalley’s Twitter feed: “The #MHD crew has been released from Jones County jail. I was pepper sprayed and choked for refusing to give ID.”



Selected tweets from my friends in the last 24 hours:

Discussions of Obama being “Good for a beer” and regular White house cocktail parties makes me happy on many, many levels.

ZOMG. Obama says he’d “go for a beer with Hannity”. Obama’s like 500000% better a person than I could ever be.

Has a man crush on Obama

These soon after the administration cited state secrets to block the Binyam Mohamed case. Obama’s a swell guy and all, but he’s not a better person than you. He wouldn’t go for a beer with Hannity because he’s so wonderful. He’d do it because that kind of glad-handing chumminess is what makes a person appeal to more than 50% of American voters. You, my friends, couldn’t put up with two years of that campaign bullshit. You wouldn’t try to cover up the previous administration’s complicity in rendition cases either. That’s why I like you. Snap out of it.


The honeymoon is over

I have nothing to add to what Greenwald, Sullivan, and Thoreau have written, but I think the Obama Administration’s invocation of state secrets to cover up torture cases deserves the widest possible coverage. It’s unfortunate that the stimulus debate will likely overshadow it. To those of you who enthusiastically supported Obama for his promise of change: Are you going to accept this?


Obama and the AUMF

In its last months in office the Bush Administration is pushing for renewal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Neal Katyal and Justin Florence note in Slate that the new AUMF grants the president power to detain people captured within the United States for essentially unlimited duration:

The AUMF broadly states that the president may use “all necessary and appropriate force” to prevent future terrorist attacks. That breadth of language led the administration to claim the AUMF authorized a vast range of practices, such as warrantless wiretapping, that Congress never had any inkling of when it passed the law. Only some of those programs have come to light; we know little about what else lurks under the auspices of the AUMF.

The AUMF also has no time limit. The consequences are revealed in the administration’s claims that it can detain an individual indefinitely in the war on terror, even after he has completely served the sentence imposed on him by a jury in a military tribunal. A law giving the president perpetual war powers is an anomaly in our constitutional system. Moreover, the AUMF gives Congress no ongoing oversight role in the war on terror. It does not mandate that the administration report to Congress on what it has done.

This is exactly the sort of abuse of executive power that Obama’s supporters are hoping he will end. Yet when Slate reporter Emily Bazelon contacted the Obama campaign for comment on the AUMF, the response was less than reassuring:

Opposing this should be a no-brainer for Obama, but when I called his advisers, I got only a hands-off, “we don’t want to get into it” response. The campaign said it was trying to stay on message. For sure there is better political hay for a Democrat to make this week. And the McCain campaign didn’t call me back at all. But it’s a reminder that candidates don’t win by talking boldly about the presidency as a self-effacing institution. Presidential modesty can be a hard virtue to sell.

Contrast this with Obama’s remarks earlier this month in defense of habeas corpus:

Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for more than a decade, said captured suspects deserve to file writs of habeus corpus.

Calling it “the foundation of Anglo-American law,” he said the principle “says very simply: If the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ And say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.'”

The safeguard is essential, Obama continued, “because we don’t always have the right person.”

Obama talks a good game when it comes to fighting civil liberties abuses. But when it comes to taking concrete steps to rein in the executive power he may soon wield, he’s worryingly unwilling to take a stand.

[Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.]

Don’t forget about FISA


Don’t forget about FISA

Despite everything I objected to in Obama’s speech, it’s this line from Richard Durbin’s introduction that grated on me most:

Barack Obama has the wisdom to know that we should never risk our freedoms and privacy to the overreaching hand of government.

A lovely thought, and one that I know resonates with many of the civil libertarians who read this blog. But civil liberties didn’t come up in Obama’s speech tonight. They get hardly any play on his website. And he failed spectacularly on his one major test on the issue during the campaign.

That test was the Bush-backed amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to expand the government’s warrantless wiretapping powers and grant immunity to the telecommunications companies that were complicit in previous spying. Obama had promised, in no uncertain terms, to support a filibuster of the bill when it came up for a vote in the Senate. But when it came time to stand up for civil liberties, he caved. First he voted for cloture on the bill, removing the possibility of filibuster. Then he voted for the bill itself.

I linked to this once before, but it’s worth quoting. Here’s Thoreau from Unqualified Offerings:

The issue on the table was whether or not companies should face legal liability for helping a President do illegal deeds. The person who is campaigning for that office broke a promise to fight the good fight, and voted in favor of a bill that would provide protection for people who help Presidents break the law. This is no small matter. This is an issue that goes to the very core of executive power and how Obama approaches governing. Greenwald has been blogging quite a bit lately about how there’s little popularity advantage to be gained from aiding abuses of power. This isn’t 2001–people aren’t nearly as scared as they were. Obama would not have paid any significant political price for opposing immunity. Yet he supported immunity, in the end, by voting for cloture and voting for a bill that included immunity. How can we read this as anything other than an endorsement of “The Decider Decides”?

Obama may not wear the same iron glove, he might turn out to be a softer Decider. But he has nonetheless endorsed the basic concept of The Decider. Screw him. No fucking way am I voting for him.

It’s tempting to support Obama after two terms of Bush, but this is the kind of thing he’s going to get away with if civil libertarians let him take their votes for granted. Don’t let him off the hook so easily.