"Lots of Libertarians would be happy to see Gary Johnson seek the nomination and he would certainly be a top, if not the top, contender... I have seen plenty of Libertarians comment that Gary Johnson takes positions that are balanced in a good way and appeal to both liberals and conservatives."
- Wes Benedict, Executive Director of the Libertarian Party
Gary Johnson has been shut out, turned down, and ignored for nearly his entire campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. At least that was the case until he started talking about a possible run as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2012. Now, it appears he has the Republican Establishment’s attention.
Johnson’s potential run has importance beyond that of its impact on the Republican Party’s chances to unseat President Barack Obama. Should the GOP nominate a candidate like Mitt Romney, who has low approval ratings among the conservative grassroots, Johnson could become a vital chess piece for the Tea Party to finally checkmate the Republican Establishment.
Third parties have historically played an important role in American democracy. However, in the 1960s, Republicans and Democrats grew wise to the deadly influence of third parties, and passed legislation that made getting third-party candidates on the ballot incredibly expensive and burdensome. With these restrictions, a system that intentionally blocked competitors from participating in the democratic process was created, and the checks on the corruption of political parties were eliminated.
It was the existence of strong third parties that allowed disloyal political factions to fail, and other parties to rise. “In the 19th century, when new or third parties were very strong, the voters replaced one of the two major parties on three occasions,” says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and an expert on ballot access laws. “The Federalists were replaced in the 1820s by the National Republican Party (the party that ran John Quincy Adams for President in 1828 and Henry Clay in 1832). The National Republican Party was in turn replaced by the Whig Party, and the Whigs were replaced by the Republican Party in 1854.”
“Without the third-party bridges,” says Winger, “the party-in-power might never be defeated, a situation that could lead to stagnation and tyranny.”
It is in this spirit of checking corruption among the ruling class that conservatives and Tea Partiers should take keen interest in Johnson’s run -- not for what it could do to strengthen third parties, but for what it could do to weaken the grip that the Republican Establishment has on the GOP.
The reason the Republican establishment has been able to dictate the direction of the GOP for so many years is because the conservative grassroots has been unable to unseat them from their Ivory Tower. The Tea Party, and its foundation in the belief that the GOP should return to its limited government roots, is a byproduct of a growing discontent with the direction of the party at the hands of liberal Republican leadership.
In 2010, the Tea Party showed the Republican Establishment just how powerful it was. They knocked-out RINO candidates in the primaries, and elected an impressive class of Tea Party-backed candidates into office. However, the lessons of 2010 seem to have faded, and Republican leaders are back to their old tricks.
What will it take to get them to listen to the grassroots? Nothing short of removing the power they’ve used to stay at the top.
That is where Johnson comes in. His mass appeal, especially to fiscal conservatives who feel betrayed by the Republican leadership’s wishy-washy stance on spending cuts, has the potential to siphon votes away from a moderate Republican presidential candidate like Romney. In a political environment where the conservative grassroots base has more allegiance to message than party (as seen in the 2011 Virginia election), a third-party candidate like Johnson, with a strong conservative message on spending, could be doomsday for a content-free Republican candidate.
This is what has the Republican establishment abuzz -- especially since they were the ones who forced Johnson into this position.
Should Johnson run as a Libertarian, the only way to neutralize his campaign would be to nominate a fiscally conservative equal like Ron Paul, or have Paul as a Vice Presidential candidate. However, Paul is no favorite to the establishment, and has been boxed-out of the nomination process nearly as much as Johnson (although Paul was allowed to appear on stage at the debates).
Without question, third-party candidacies -- even Johnson’s -- will likely never have much of a chance to win outright as long as ballot access laws inhibit the ability of third parties to participate equally in the democratic process. However, this is not to say that strong third-party bids are without purpose, and can’t be used as weapons to effect positive change within the major two parties. While Johnson’s third-party bid may be a long-shot electorally, its potential to weaken -- if not destroy -- the Republican establishment is much more real.
Support of Johnson would not even have to be an endorsement of the Libertarian Party, or of third parties in general. It could simply be a wake-up call to the Republican establishment that their time has come, and that conservatives are no longer satisfied with candidates simply because they have an “R” next to their names.
This is why conservatives should not readily dismiss Johnson as a third-party candidate.
There comes a point when enough is enough, and even the specter of another Obama term is more tolerable than another decade (or more) of Republican establishment rule. It’s because of this rule that Obama was elected in the first place, and as long as liberal Republican leadership continues to set the direction and messaging of the party, the next “Obama” is always right around the corner.
Will it take a Johnson spoiler to force a change in leadership? Hopefully not, but eventually something has to give. The status quo is no longer an option for Republicans.
Editor's Note: Andrew Davis is a volunteer for the Gary Johnson 2012 presidential campaign, and is the former Director of Communications for the national Libertarian Party. He also served as the Deputy Press Secretary for the Bob Barr 2008 presidential campaign.