Back in (comparative) reality — even in the main ballroom, the night’s event was ticket-only, reserved for top-tier donors, or those who had $20 to spend on being there. Despite that, people lined up early and eventually filled the room past seated capacity, with Johnson and Petersen supporters chanting out the names of their candidate — a mindset which I know I will never, ever be able to fathom: why invest so much in a person who, through the process of politics, will inevitably disappoint you in principle, performance, or both?
Moderating would be radio personality and self-styled “Sage of Southern California” Larry Elder, the same question in different wordings. Thankfully the debate format — 30 seconds to respond to any question, 30 seconds rebuttal to any rival mentioned by name — kept things mostly on track. But the questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why, between barrel-fish such as “What should we do about the Fed?” for the candidates to dutifully shotgun, and spring-load traps such as “Should driver’s licenses be required to operate a car?” for the candidates to either produce extreme responses, or get booed for their lack of extremity. And that’s not even to mention simply bizarre questions such as, “Do you think American intervention in World War I and World War II was justified?”, as if anyone could answer such a question in 30 seconds.
In the main ballroom there was introductory music from a man playing gently looping ambient guitar, with occasional lyrics urging hearers to "arm yourselves to the teeth."
Johnson had, in many ways, the hardest task, forced to play not only to the more radical crowd on the floor, but also the TV audience and the bumper crop of media. So he concentrated mostly on process: noting not the utopian ideals he would instill as president, but which bills he would or would not be prepared to sign should Congress put them on his desk. His economic plans were a buffet of conservative thinktank ideas: flat tax, vouchers for schools, states as labs for entitlement plans, higher retirement age and means testing for Social Security (huge boos here), privatized infrastructure, etc. Asked about Trump, he said he “didn’t want to talk about him,” before rattling off a long list of ways the Republican candidate is wrong, a rapid-fire preview of what a 2016 Johnson campaign could be.
He often returned to his experience as governor, but it got him in trouble once: when asked how or who he would appoint to the Supreme Court, Johnson brought up a bizarre hypothetical he used to vet candidates in New Mexico: if a law passed making graffiti punishable by the death penalty, would the candidate uphold an indisputable conviction under that law? It’s a strange thought experiment at best, but one that was never going to land in a roomful of people who earlier that day had committed the party to a platform plank against the death penalty, whatever the offense. More generally, Johnson has a strange catch to his voice when he talks off the cuff, so not only is it very clear which responses are practiced, it also makes the spontaneous ones less confident, or in the sharper words of a fellow reporter, “more pulled from his ass.” If he somehow manages to get a debate with the major-party candidates, Trump will pick him to pieces for that if it’s not dealt with. However, he showed that he’s not afraid to stick to his guns on answers he knows will draw disapproval, in particular in reaffirming that he would sign off on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in both public and private establishments.
The questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why.
Johnson was on his strongest ground in asserting that he is the only candidate with even a narrow chance of getting to a national stage; several of his opponents were rhetorically smoother, if perhaps not more practiced, but their lack of name recognition or record of political accomplishments would make sure they never saw any media time, period. The only exception among the debaters was John McAfee, who can command media attention, but at the cost of no one having any idea exactly what he’s going to say at any given moment. He left open more room for government involvement (by Libertarian Party standards) than anyone besides Johnson; e.g., in transitioning Social Security and entitlement programs rather than just ending them outright, allowing a minimum role in repairing and maintaining interstate highways, and possibly in discouraging lawsuits, both because of the costs added to health insurance by malpractice suits, and similar; and because of personal experience — “I’ve been sued more than 200 times; lawyers are the hand of Satan.”
On other issues, though, he went out the farthest on the limb, such as being the only candidate to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a manmade phenomenon, even as he noted (as did Johnson) that government, and especially the military, is the biggest polluter, and it will take free markets to provide the necessary solutions. Despite this, he didn’t get booed as Johnson did — possibly because he wasn’t a Republican governor in the past, but possibly also because his magnetism in one-on-one conversations doesn’t really carry through to a debate format. McAfee was perhaps constitutionally unable to play a crowd; one can see why he’s out of step with the Silicon Valley hordes in the era of huckster-pattered TED Talks.
On the opposite spectrum was Darryl W. Perry, a New Hampshire-based anarchist with no problems filling the room with his voice. Perry’s extensive catalog of applause lines, honed on his radio show Free Talk Live, demonstrated both his greatest strength and weakness: the former his ability to riff on almost any question that could be put to him; the latter the sheer predictability of his answers — not even in content so much as in rhythm: start with a seeming tangent or even non sequitur, then bring it back to the subject by the end. Thus, asked about Social Security, Perry starts by asking the crowd “Do you love grandmas?” and how people will support grandmas through voluntary contributions if the program is eliminated. Asked about transgender rights and the North Carolina bathroom law, Perry introduces the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.
I had heard these same anecdotes from Perry in an interview the day before, almost down to the exact pitch and modulation (and, a bit unfortunately, nearly the exact volume as well, in a smaller space). Perry’s voice is a strength — “radio quality” as several media onlookers noted — though as he gets excited, he can lose command of it, with a tendency also toward destructive gestures such as podium-pounding. He has a sense of theater; he was the only candidate to liven up his obligatory “end the Fed” answer by ripping apart a dollar, noting that act was “probably a felony”; he also may have been the only candidate to quote literature or classical liberal philosophy, dropping in references to both Mark Twain and Frédéric Bastiat. None of which was likely to earn him a single vote outside the radical faction: many in the LP would applaud lines about conducting all government business via charitable contribution, making all drugs “as legal as tomatoes,” and eliminating the entire presidential cabinet in alphabetical order, but they weren’t going to make their speaker the face of the party.
Perry introduced the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.
Petersen put great faith in his face, and in polished image and presentation generally; it was only when the debate (or events off the convention floor) went off-plan that the cracks began to show. In the debate, he had the great advantage of being at Johnson’s right, meaning that for four out of every five questions, he responded immediately after the ex-governor. Whenever Johnson suggested an incrementalist approach to reducing the size of a government program or agency, Petersen was right there to suggest ending it immediately. If Johnson said the free market had bankrupted coal, Petersen retorted that it was government regulation and crony capitalism instead. If Johnson suggested user fees for the road system, Petersen broke out his best Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Amid all this needling, Petersen’s best moment was a reminder of the racist origins of the minimum wage, passed by union-backed white legislatures as a means of keeping black labor from entering the market. But Petersen lost some support elsewhere: in particular by responding to the question of when life begins (which Perry rightly called out as a trap meant to divide the audience), by asserting it’s at conception — though he wouldn’t be drawn on when, if ever, terminating a pregnancy would become a criminal act. Asked about the appropriate size of the military, he trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis: “Be professional, be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” Petersen even got booed from some corners for suggesting that it would be reasonable to have laws preventing children from buying heroin or other hard drugs.
If Petersen profited by having Johnson at his left, he got himself into the red by having Marc Allan Feldman to his right. Feldman wasn’t exactly the breakout star of the event — as he reminded everyone, he was nobody before he began his campaign, and he encouraged them to vote for nobody in the ballots to come. He began by noting that he was passing up part of his son’s wedding weekend to be in Orlando; to judge from his performance, it was the correct decision. Here was a man having the absolute time of his life: with no need to attack anyone or defend any particular position, Feldman spoke with honesty and humor, handling even the thornier questions with grace as well as lines that meandered less than some others’. He sidestepped the religious question by noting that, for religious reasons, he didn’t believe in mixing milk and meat — yet he wouldn’t argue that cheeseburgers should be illegal. On the question of withdrawing from or ending NATO, the IMF, or the UN, he quipped that maybe the UN was fine, since it didn’t ever seem to do anything.
Asked about the appropriate size of the military, Petersen trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis.
I don’t mean to suggest that these lines were the height of wit, but rather to credit Feldman for selling them with his warmth and obvious sincerity. On every question where the candidates were largely in agreement — cutting government spending, opening up trade, easing or eliminating immigration controls (there was scarcely a word to be heard here for tight borders, all those voters evidently having gone to Trump) — Feldman offered at least a little joviality through his responses. For his final statement, the candidate who had run a video of himself rapping during his nomination speech went back to the well, running through a sort of slam poem with an intensity that brought the house down; he very nearly got carried out on the crowd’s shoulders.
After the debate, the candidates pressed the flesh while operatives scurried about trying to get rough counts for the next morning’s election. While Feldman was soaking up the well-wishes of debate attendees, he was also already getting pressured by both Johnson and Petersen campaigns to drop out after the first ballot and endorse the respective candidacies. McAfee and Perry had earlier worked out an agreement of reciprocal support, but now Petersen (whose campaign suite shared an interior door with McAfee’s) sought the same — though it would be uphill going, to judge by the several radicals I spoke with on the night who would vote McAfee, but preferred that old Libertarian standby, None Of The Above, to either Johnson or Petersen. Nonetheless, via various channels, the three campaigns began work in earnest on an “Anyone But Gary” coalition. As the candidate machine hustled, convention attendees moved in knots and bunches out to the pool, into the bars, and up to the various room parties. With the nominations and debate done, the true business of the convention could begin.