Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is a charming person with interesting ideas, and he’s unfit for the presidency. I thought this after his meeting with the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board this summer, which I sat in on, and again Thursday, when he now infamously asked journalist Mike Barnicle, “What is Aleppo?” Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, now a veritable hellscape, and Barnicle used it as a synecdoche for the country itself. Johnson appeared out of his depth on international issues, which was doubly problematic as Libertarians are often criticized for being isolationists, a foreign policy apparently acceptable to voters only when deployed by Donald Trump.
This is a question no other major candidate would have asked, though each for different reasons. (I’m talking about the four candidates whose names will appear on ballots in states with enough electoral votes to win the presidency: Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein and Johnson.)
You know Clinton knows what Aleppo is; she probably knows the names of its different quarters. I wouldn’t be shocked if she knows where you could have gotten the best kibbeh there before the war. Take all the shots you want at Hillary, but the woman knows next to everything. When she was up against Bernie Sanders, his supporters said her foreign policy was hawkish, not that it was based in ignorance. Put her in a debate against Trump and his supporters talk about how she didn’t smile enough, how they don’t like her tone; that’s what they’ve got.
I don’t know if Donald Trump knows what Aleppo is, but there’s no way in hell he’d admit to not knowing what an interviewer was talking about. Trump doesn’t ask for clarification: he elides, he rescripts. For instance, take this interview in which CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer presses Trump on his repeated claims that Obama’s birth certificate was fake.
BLITZER: Because you know your critics are saying you’re doing to Ted Cruz what you tried to do to President Obama, where he --
TRUMP: Who knows about Obama?
BLITZER: His mother was a U.S. citizen, born in Kansas. Was he a natural-born citizen?
TRUMP: Who knows? Who cares right now? We’re talking about something else, OK…
Blitzer drops the question. Had Trump been stumped by the question Johnson choked on — “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” — his answer might have been, “Well, Mike, there are many things we’re going to need to focus on once I am president. As I’ve been talking about, we need a wall …” See how he does that? He’s been doing it for a year.
I’m not sure if Green Party candidate Jill Stein knows what Aleppo is, but if she didn’t it would be the least of her problems. Stein has few executable policy plans. For instance, her campaign platform pledges to guarantee housing but, when asked a few weeks ago how she would achieve this, she said that it was “an aspirational goal at this point. We do not have a specific program.” No rush, Jill, the election’s not for another 60 days. Here’s an excerpt from Stein’s meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board in which she and board member Lee Hockstader talk about what the U.S. should do in Syria:
HOCKSTADER: What funding specifically has not been frozen?
STEIN: Well, for example, weapons are flowing to the Saudis, you know, to the tune of $110 billion worth over the last —
HOCKSTADER: You said freeze all funding to ISIS [Islamic State], I think?
STEIN: Well the Saudis unfortunately are, you know, have a hand in supporting jihadi terrorist groups, like al-Nusra for example, and other terrorist groups. I mean, I’d be happy to send you a number of references —
HOCKSTADER: So that would achieve the defeat of ISIS?
That’s a mess so hot it boils the brain. Later in that same meeting, Stein told the Post board, “I hate to be the one to break that news to you if you haven’t heard, but it’s not looking good for the climate if you actually pay attention to the science.” When Stein got stuck on the legitimate questions asked about her energy policy’s viability, she condescended to her interviewers. (By the way, they have heard, and they do pay attention. They also write about climate change, frequently and progressively.) The presidential office comes with challenges Stein has neither the foresight nor patience to rise to.
So, back to Johnson. He’s self-made, idealistic and principled, deserving of his reputation as one of New Mexico’s most popular governors. Johnson’s placid exterior belies his hardcore extracurriculars: He climbed the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents, built his own home and has competed in Ironman triathlons, ultramarathons, even a “death march” across the desert. Johnson’s cult appeal is easy to understand; I’d get a proverbial beer with him any day of the week.
His ideas are engaging, so long as you don’t think too hard; the same could be said about libertarianism in general. When pressed by The Times’ board on comprehensive tax reform — the largest and most challenging piece of the Libertarian Party platform — he finally concluded, “Well, we may have a difference of opinion,” a deferentially impersonal way of framing disagreement. While highlighting the difference between how Johnson disagrees and how Stein disagrees in interviews can be viewed as unsubstantial — or worse, sexist — navigating disagreement is key to diplomatic relationships, both with Congress and with foreign governments. Johnson is exceptionally good at it, perhaps the best of all four candidates.
What he’s not great at is explaining away the perceived vulnerabilities of a libertarian ideology. A good illustration is the transcript of The Times’ meeting with Johnson; his responses there can be hard to follow. All the same, it remains one of the Opinion section’s most-read pieces of the year.
Johnson’s humility is refreshing, particularly contrasted with Trump’s arrogance and bravado, and connected with readers. In his interview with the L.A. Times editorial board, he said:
You listen to it all the time: Politicians that sit in front of you and tell you that they have all the answers, and if they don’t have the answers they are on the hot seat and declared irrelevant because they don’t have all the answers. Well, I did serve two terms as governor of New Mexico and I had never been involved in politics before, and my response to a lot of these complex questions were that I don’t have the answers, but it does need to be part of a discussion and a debate and that I did move the ball forward because I insisted that the ball needs to move forward. I realize that I walk out of here and [you may say], “This guy doesn’t know anything.” I’d like the takeaway to be: He knows enough not to state what he doesn’t know.
In the same vein, Johnson issued an apology about Aleppo, underscoring his humanity and assuring voters that he would have daily briefings from experts once in office. But the sheer volume of national and international issues that prompt his humility makes him unfit to serve as president.
The Aleppo gaffe on Thursday was a shot to the hearts of third-party candidate supporters, and for those of us who hoped to see Johnson’s and Stein’s ideas debated on a larger stage. Clinton and Trump are two of the least popular candidates that have ever run for president. But Johnson’s misstep underscores there’s no viable escape hatch from this year’s unpalatable binary.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her on Twitter @velvetmelvis.
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