Matt Welch: After gaffes, is Gary Johnson qualified for presidency?
He says unserious media spent a couple news cycles making hay over Johnson gotcha question
Welch: In two-party system, candidates still measured on mannerisms, not substance of ideas
Editor’s Note: Matt Welch is editor-it-large for Reason and co-author of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America” (Public Affairs). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Is Gary Johnson qualified to run for president? Let’s talk about that, but first let’s talk about this:
Two weeks ago, the foreign affairs select committee of the British House of Commons released a detailed, damning report about one of Hillary Clinton’s signature achievements as secretary of state: The 2011 US/UK/French-led military intervention into Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, which was sold as a necessity to prevent (in President Barack Obama’s words) “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region.”
“This policy,” the conservative-led committee concluded, “was not informed by accurate intelligence. In particular, the [British] Government failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element. By the summer of 2011, the limited intervention to protect civilians had drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change. That policy was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-(Gadhafi) Libya. The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of (Gadhafi) regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”
You might think that a deeply sourced report from an allied government about trumped-up intelligence leading to yet another destabilizing Middle East war might make some headlines in the country where the administration’s leading proponent of said intervention is poised to become the next leader of the free world.
But you would be wrong.
Aside from a handful of mostly ideological outlets, the US news media declined to even note that the Democratic presidential nominee suffered a comprehensive rebuke to her oft-repeated assertion that Libya represented American “smart power at its best.” As The Atlantic delicately put it, “The British public has been engaged in a debate about war that has been largely absent from the U.S. presidential election.”
Ah, yes, but did you hear the one about Gary Johnson not being able to come up on the spot with the name of his favorite foreign leader? Disqualifying! And also, oddly, nearly ubiquitous in the same media that couldn’t be bothered to reexamine a Hillary Clinton policy that has adversely affected countless human lives.
We have come to expect a certain unseriousness from a press corps that spent several weeks in 2012 snickering over Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.”
What’s new this time around is the add-on concern-trolling aimed at those of us who have no intention of voting for either of the most hated of modern major-party presidential nominees. It must be so hard for you, our well-meaning friends say, that your candidate turned out to be such a flake.
I have no problem saying the Libertarian Party nominee screwed up in this or any other interview. But if there’s anything more obnoxious than cheerleaders for Donald “bomb-the-sh—out-of-ISIS” Trump mocking Johnson for foreign-policy ignorance, it’s supporters and enablers of Hillary Clinton rolling their eyes theatrically at a presidential candidate who was against the Iraq and Libyan wars in real time, who wants to pardon rather than imprison Edward Snowden, and who comports himself with occasionally awkward humility rather than with the polished and delusional omniscience that we’ve unfortunately come to demand in our presidential candidates.
So yes, it was a bad day for the most successful third-party candidate since H. Ross Perot. But, to paraphrase the late, great Paul Harvey, did you ever hear the rest of the story? After Johnson’s rambling brain-freeze, his vice presidential nominee, William Weld, bailed him out by nominating for a worthy current foreign leader Germany’s Angela Merkel. A contestable choice, to be sure, but no matter: Who did Clinton and Trump select when asked the same question on Thursday? Would you believe … Angela Merkel?
So congratulations, media, we’ve just spent a couple news cycles making great hay over a gotcha question that the three leading White House tickets largely answered with the same name.
It’s useful to be reminded that America’s still-dominant, two-party hierarchy has much more to do with the mannerisms of power than the substance of ideas. Which makes sense, when you realize how lousy our governing ideas continue to be, particularly on foreign policy.