Johnson and Weld could deliver Libertarians their biggest victory ever
Polls have shown higher than normal interest in a third-party option
In an election cycle full of surprises – and unprecedented dissatisfaction with the major party candidates – voters got a look at a couple of fresh faces Wednesday night in a town hall event live on CNN.
Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, flanked by his running mate Bill Weld, used the opportunity to introduce himself to voters and slam the existing Washington order.
“The two-party system is a two-party dinosaur, and they’re about to come in contact with the comet here,” Johnson told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Weld, a former Massachusetts Republican governor who once worked in President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and wanted to serve as an ambassador in the Clinton administration, said “that duopoly down there in Washington is not getting a lot done.”
“It’s almost like the parties exist more for the purpose of slandering each other than they do for having constructive approaches to legislation,” Weld said. “We like to think we’re going to be the third way.”
Despite their contempt for the current state of 2016 politics, the libertarians showed positive indifference to the political battles being waged on the campaign trail. When it came to Hillary Clinton attacking Donald Trump’s business record or Trump calling Clinton corrupt, Johnson said he would “leave that to others.”
“I don’t think either of us are going to engage in any sort of name-calling,” Johnson said. “We’re going to keep this to the issues, and the issues are plenty.”
The two had cordial words for Clinton and President Barack Obama, but were quick to voice their differences with Trump.
“Starting with immigration, starting with free trade, going on and on and on, killing the families of Muslim terrorists. Really, it’s what’s coming out of his mouth that I really have issues with,” said Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico, of Trump.
Weld, who regularly condemns Trump, cast his rhetoric as dangerous.
“You cannot be a president of the United States and talk like that,” Weld said.
Johnson – who often speaks in broad strokes about his proposals – was forced to confront voters’ specific questions and dive into a range of issues during the town hall that spanned more than an hour.
Johnson has been a staunch advocate of Second Amendment rights, but said he was open for a “discussion” around solutions to incidences of gun violence.
Johnson told Jeanette McCoy, a survivor of the Orlando shooting: “We’re not looking to roll back anything” on existing gun regulations, adding that he would look into law enforcement solutions.
“The FBI came in contact with this guy (the Orlando shooter) three times. What transpired? Why wasn’t this guy deprived of his guns?” Johnson asked.
Weld called for “a thousand-person FBI task force treating ISIS as a gigantic organized crime family.”
Johnson and Weld also both affirmed their abortion rights positions. Johnson said Republicans “alienate a lot of people” when they attack Planned Parenthood, a women’s health organization that provides abortion procedures.
“We’re not looking to change the law of the land in anyway,” Johnson said.
They both had harsh words for Trump on immigration, leveling some of their strongest language against the Republican presumptive nominee.
Johnson, a former border governor, called Trump’s calls for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants and the erection of a border wall “incendiary,” and bordering on “insanity.”
Weld compared Trump’s rise and appeal to the Nazis, repeating a claim he’s previously made.
“The Republican presumptive nominee has succeeded in tapping into the very worst political traditions of the United States and other countries,” Weld said.
He added that images of the Holocaust, including “Anne Frank hiding in the attic” was “directly analogous” to Trump’s deportation policy.
Maureen Morella, an undecided voter, brought up the struggle her family had with her son’s heroin overdose and took issue with Johnson’s laissez faire approach to drug policy. Johnson pushed back on her concerns, saying government regulations had harmed drug addicts more than his policies would.
“Prohibition really is what your son succumbed to,” Johnson said in a somewhat awkward response to her personal question.
He advocated a series of harm prevention programs, including needle exchanges and safe-injection zones. In response, Morella said: “You’re keeping people addicted.”
“We have the best policies in this country to kill heroin addicts,” Johnson said, pushing for another way forward on drugs.
Johnson, who has often repeated the Libertarian refrain that “taxation is theft,” advocated for radical reform of the U.S. tax code.
“Count on me to sign on tax policy that would reduce or simplify taxes in this country,” Johnson said. “But If I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate income tax, I would eliminate corporate tax, I would abolish the IRS and I would replace it all with one federal consumption tax.”
The presidential candidate advocated a conservative plan known as Fair Tax, but pressed for specifics, said he would support any such reform so long as it was “revenue neutral.”
Adding to his anti-Washington message, he said a total simplification of the U.S. tax code would mean that “80% of Washington lobbysits would go away. Because that’s why they’re there, to garner special tax favor.”
Weld said: “I don’t think you have to go so far as abolishing the IRS,” as long as they could give people the sense that tax rates would go down.
Johnson ran as a Libertarian in 2012 and failed to gain much traction. This time around, he’s running with Weld, which may help add credibility, attention and fundraising prowess to a perennial long-shot White House effort.
Already, Johnson has shown his candidacy could have potency given voter disappointment in Trump and Clinton. A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday showed Johnson earning 9% support nationwide and likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein pulling 7% support among registered voters. Among those voters who say they are not settled on a candidate in the two-way race, more than one-third choose Johnson (23%) or Stein (12%) when asked the four-way match up.
Ahead of the town hall event, the Libertarian duo got a boost from former Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The Libertarian icon told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that although he hadn’t decided who he would vote for, it wouldn’t be Trump or Clinton.
“I think people who say they want significant change, they want to protect individual liberty, are concerned about the Constitution, they should think seriously about voting for a Libertarian principle,” Paul said.
Successful performances at events like CNN’s town hall are crucial as Johnson hopes to bolster his support high enough to get a spot on the general election debate stage – 15% in five polls selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. And the continued discord inside the major parties could help Johnson and Weld deliver Libertarians their biggest victory ever.
The Libertarian Party has also pledged to get ballot access in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. If it is successful, the Johnson/Weld ticket will be the only one alongside the Democratic and Republican tickets in front of every voter come Election Day.