Libertarian Party Convention tests former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

Updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue May 31, 2016
02:33 - Source: CNN
Libertarians throw shade at Dems and GOP at convention

Story highlights

Johnson was criticized for his vice presidential pick

He also brushed off critics who say he hasn't been a great messenger for the party

(CNN) —  

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the front-runner for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, faced an uptick in criticism Saturday at the party’s national convention.

Johnson, who was also the party’s nominee in 2012, has been on the receiving end of attacks for his vice presidential pick, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. These attacks simmered through the audience at the party’s final presidential debate, the night before the Libertarians select their nominee.

Weld, a former Republican from a blue state, has had a difficult time pitching himself to the Libertarian convention. Many have been skeptical over Weld’s libertarian credentials, especially his record on gun control and support for Republican politicians. Prior to teaming up with Johnson, Weld had endorsed Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich for President.

The debate among the candidates was civil throughout on stage, with the candidates eschewing attacks against one another in favor of attacks on the government and mainstream political parties.

In a potential preview of his general election campaign, Johnson rolled through a list of Trump’s policy positions, accenting each with the phrase “that’s just wrong.”

That move led to Johnson’s biggest applause line of the night, though the crowd was much more vocal about Johnson’s competitors, particularly Austin Petersen and Marc Feldman. Petersen is a young party activist with a sizable following online, and Feldman is an affable figure many convention goers, including Johnson, have praised.

The crowd exploded in approval during Feldman’s lengthy, passionate rap about Libertarianism.

Meanwhile, technology entrepreneur John McAfee, whose pre-debate ritual consisted of throwing a party replete with a light show, bass-heavy dance music and women dressed as butterflies on stilts, was non-combative during the debate despite a cryptic warning he offered ahead of the event.

“Whoever allowed me in this debate tonight made the worst mistake of their life,” McAfee told CNN in an interview.

But despite his aggressive words ahead of the debate, McAfee, like all the other candidates, stuck to the issues in a debate that was less about differentiating the candidates than it was about touting Libertarian beliefs.

Johnson got booed several times for offering less-than-purist libertarian positions, including saying he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He also said he favors that people continue to obtain licenses to drive cars – an idea that his fellow candidates disagreed with.

Given the backlash he has faced, Johnson responded to his critics within the party during a speech before the convention and repeatedly said in an interview he hopes Weld will end up as his running mate. Libertarians elect their presidential and vice presidential candidates separately.

“I am not an old white guy. And I am not Republican-light. I’m a Libertarian,” Johnson said.

Despite some Libertarian in-fighting, calls for party unity were a regular theme.

“Divided we may have been for this short time,” Petersen said, “We will present a united front against the forces of statism.”

Libertarians have their moment in the spotlight

The convention was not lacking in color. The hallways were buzzing with not only presidential candidates and their followers, but comic book characters attending Megacon 2016 and young girls dolled up in hairspray and leotards for a tap-dancing competition in the same venue.

Along with the eccentric party thrown by McAffee, candidates and other groups invited delegates to hospitality suites in the hotel. In room 261, convention goers and delegates drank beer as they carried out philosophical discussions and paused in glee to watch the TV whenever CNN switched to coverage of the convention. Some took photos of the screen. Others stepped out to smoke cigars.

The attention and hype around this year’s convention is unusual. Because the two frontrunners in the Democratic and Republican parties are so unpopular, libertarians are seeing flocks of disaffected voters show interest in a third party candidate.

“The people of America see Trump, they see Hillary, and a lot of them are throwing their hands up in the air and looking elsewhere,” said delegate Peter Rohrman of New Jersey.

Libertarians here are hoping the increased media attention will help alter the American public’s view of their party and debunk some of the stereotypes. Most here want to be seen as a thoughtful, diverse, and tolerant party with serious ideas.

Holding a can of Coca-Cola, Rohrman walked over to the window in the hospitality suite and pulled back the curtains.

“We’re looking outside here and I don’t see a single protester. Nobody’s upset that libertarians are here,” he said. “Nobody’s angry. Nobody’s throwing rocks. Libertarians are peaceful people. We just want everyone to get along and let people live life the way they want to live it.”

Alexis Walker, a 19-year-old student and delegate, specifically referenced Never Trump Republicans, saying many will start gravitating toward the Libertarian option.

“In a strange way,” she said. “I think Trump is a blessing in disguise.”

Can they sustain the attention?

Libertarians are enjoying their moment in the spotlight, but the question is whether they can keep the lights on.

Some worry that Johnson lacks the charisma to take on Clinton and Trump in the general, citing his soft-spoken, laissez-faire style.

“Until we have somebody that is not going to be laughed off and has the ability to capture the attention of the nation, we’re still going to be thought of as the kiddy table of politics,” said Brandon Navom, a 35-year-old software engineer from Nashua, New Hampshire.

Navom, who was leaning towards voting for McAfee, said libertarians need to take a page out of the Trump playbook and learn to better appeal to voters’ emotions rather than their stances on issues.

“Libertarians think being logically right is enough. And it is not, because most people do not vote based upon logic,” he said. “Most base their decisions on emotions and so we need to capitalize on those emotions.”

Johnson, a more pragmatic libertarian than purist, is attempting to rely on his record as veto-heavy governor as a selling point. In the debate Saturday night, he invoked his experience in government in nearly every answer.

But in the Republican primary, at least, taking a record-heavy approach was an unsuccessful tactic for governors, as evidenced by the failed campaigns of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry, among others.

“The reason why Trump was so successful is people got a concept of the problem. They understand our system is broken. They’re upset, they’re frustrated, right?” Navom said. “They feel betrayed by a system that is failing them. We need to have somebody who can take that same emotion and funnel it in our direction.

Johnson apologized this weekend for not being the most “articulate” messenger on libertarian issues, and many libertarians agree that he could use some help with his style.

Boyd Kendall, a delegate from Mississippi, said Johnson could benefit from “speech training” and that Weld had “joined the party too late.”

Aaron Barksdale, also from Mississippi, expressed concern about Johnson representing the party against Donald Trump.

“We need somebody that can hold his own, and I don’t believe Johnson is that guy,” Barksdale said.

But Johnson brushed off such criticism about his public speaking skills.

“I work as hard as I possibly can about that. You can always get better of course. Hey, life is constant improvement,” Johnson told CNN in an interview.