This year’s Libertarian National Convention is indisputably the most widely covered in Party history. Walking the halls of the Rosen Centre today, you would have seen CNN reporters making video diaries with Austin Petersen; a Spike TV team filming a documentary on John McAfee; MSNBC interviewing Gary Johnson and his handpicked veep candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld; a gaggle of onlookers from ABC, CBS, and regular NBC; and an extremely bored-looking crew from Vice News that probably expected rather more sex and drugs, and rather less parliamentary procedure. And that’s just the TV folks: there’s also reporters on the ground from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight, et very much alium. All seem to agree that the event matters this year in a way it previously hasn’t, though the exact matter of that mattering is up for debate. And all those without prior experience of the LP seem a bit unsure exactly what to cover, or how.
Some, like the Vice crew, clearly came to confirm some stereotype that doesn’t reflect the actual makeup of a crowd much more inclined to policy wonkery than debauchery. (If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, guys, you should have tried the Republican Convention.) Some came to document grotesques, only to find that the most outré LP members—like Starchild, resplendent today in a translucent polyvinyl poncho over a black Speedo; part of his quest to encourage “transparency” in Party dealings—are also often their most erudite and well-spoken.
If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, you should have tried the Republican Convention.
Many of the reporters resorted to hanging around the back of the main ballroom, trying to wend their way through the Byzantinia of LP procedure; others wandered in a daze around the exhibit area, latching onto T-shirts with Ayn Rand’s face on them, or booths advertising some sort of holistic healing, as proof at last of the dogmatism or crackpotdom of the attendees. (Not knowing any better, they already missed the story there evident only through absence: the lack of booths devoted to the 9/11 Truth movement or other conspiracies—all those types having already jumped ship to Trump.) Most, though, bounced around campaign events for the three high-profile candidates, trying to get some sort of comment. And this is odd, because in the three conventions I’ve now covered, I can’t imagine a convention where it is less necessary to get vox spots from the mainliners, given what’s already on the public record.
Start with Petersen. He’s a fresh-faced Seth Macfarlane-looking guy, barely old enough to fulfill the constitutional requirements to serve as president. He has a stable of press-ready statements about how he is the “outsider candidate in the outsider party”—though he has worked within the LP apparatus for years now. He presents himself, especially via his personal pro-life beliefs, as the option for outreach to conservative #NeverTrump-ers—but his main method of limiting abortion would be through expanded access to contraceptives: a sensible approach, but not one likely to seduce those Catholics left unhoused by events in the GOP. In the past, he’s been goaded into boastful, callow statements by people he should handle easily; though he claims to have “grown” since then, one wonders just how much difference a year can make—and likewise, how much difference it will make to the national press, who can and will harry him with that comment should he ever become relevant.
McAfee, on the other hand, seems to be carrying out some sort of publicity stunt. I actually don’t doubt the sincerity of his beliefs—few people have seen firsthand the dangers of government like he has—but whether under his own steam or others’, he’s involved in this quest to rehabilitate his image through what must be one of the last outlets open to him. He’s a striking figure, to be sure, and even a brief talk with him provides glimpses of a rogue and roguish intellect, but given his past troubles and present unpredictability, few I’ve talked with can actually envision him as anyone’s standard bearer; even his threat to leave the Party if the “boring” Gary Johnson gets nominated is met with a resounding, “So?”
Given McAfee's past troubles and present unpredictability, few I've talked with can actually envision him as anyone's standard bearer.
Johnson is boring, don’t get me wrong, as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be. Firebranding doesn’t come naturally to him, and his stump speeches labor, as if he has to remind himself continually what emotions are, and which one he should be showing at any particular point. There are legitimate concerns about his campaign expenditures, and the percentage of funds going to consultant services or servicing past debt. (And here I note the sad lack of an R.W. Bradford to scour spreadsheets and turn up the story behind the story.) And there is an argument to be had about whether the LP can claim to be the “party of principle” when it serves as landing pad for career Republicans on the outs. But it’s evident also that Johnson must be the choice if the party wishes to take advantage of an election whose likes, God willing, we will never see again. And whatever happens here, it seems unlikely to produce the sort of recrimination or schismatic bluster of the 2008 convention.
All the media I’ve talked to without prior LP familiarity are confused by the idea that Johnson wouldn’t be the nominee—after all, why wouldn’t you want the person clearly best positioned to maximize your returns in this cycle? But they underestimate another libertarian stereotype, one more deeply grounded: that inherent anti-authority stance, the perversely impish bird-flipping to anyone or anything telling them what to do, even (or especially) if it’s in their best interest. In Orlando, you can see this most clearly in the response to Weld, whose VP candidacy is under fire from Petersen and others wondering why the Libertarian newcomer didn’t endorse Johnson this time or last. Johnson’s reply, that Weld was “the original libertarian,” was met with the scorn it deserved; even if the ex-New Mexico Gov. gets nominated, it may be without his fellow gubernatorial alumnus. Catchphrases like “taxation is theft” clunk off Weld’s tongue, and he was vastly outperformed in the evening’s VP debate, by black veteran Larry Sharpe in particular—though Weld did still take the straw poll after; much of the drama of this convention could well cohere in the vice-presidential election.
Johnson is as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be.
Enough about them, though. In Party news of actual note, if there were any GOP takeover on the cards, it proved abortive on the day. The Radical Caucus was in full force at the bylaws and platform meetings, with several members patrolling the ballroom aisles with neon lightsabers and signs emblazoned with thumbs—if the caucus supported a motion, the sabers glowed green and the thumbs turned up; if not, then a red gleam and thumbs down. Their biggest success on the day was defeating an effort to delete the “personal conscience” abortion plank in the LP platform—led, many suspected, by Republican refugees, although there was also a group seeking to delete that plank in order to replace it with one more explicitly supporting a pro-choice position. The assembly also rejected the addition of “Parental Responsibilities” to the “Parental Rights” plank. While one would hope that very few attendees would speak for the rights of parents to abuse or neglect their children (or as one speaker put it, to prostitute their 2-year-olds and give them heroin), the plank itself was considered too vague, with even such words as “child” lacking a clearly delineated, legally valid meaning.
Platforming and electioneering, and Liberty’s coverage of it all both here and on Twitter will continue on the morrow.