Free at Last, Gary Johnson is Free at Last

The former governor of New Mexico, a man who gathered so little media interest that I can’t even find a good photo of him in Slate’s nifty Getty Images widget, has officially tromped over to the Libertarian Party. “Frankly,” he says in a statement, “I have been deeply disappointed by the treatment I received in the Republican nomination process. I had hoped to lay out a real libertarian message on all the issues in the Republican contest. The process was not fair and open.” (I mostly agree with this. To anyone who still defends the candidate inclusion standards of the debates: Boy, good thing we heard so much from Herman Cain, huh?)

Johnson deals early with the “R” word.

While Ron Paul is a good man and a libertarian who I proudly endorsed for president in 2008, there is no guarantee that he will be the Republican nominee.

This is putting it mildly, but Johnson is also giving Paul an argument to make to Republicans: It would be harder for him to bolt the GOP again if he got fed up with this campaign. Johnson has a head start on the LP nomination. Forget the 2012 disappointment for a minute: Johnson has been courted as a Libertarian candidate for years, ever since he became an advocate for marijuana decriminalization. The LP convention, thinned out as it may be, is generally pretty left-libertarian. The paleos have all followed Ron Paul back to the GOP. In 2008 it took Bob Barr, a national politician with some media heft, six ballots to wrest the LP nomination from Mary Ruwart, a frequent candidate who argued that Barr was a doctrinaire right-winger. Sure, the LP would trade anything for Paul today. But Johnson’s a fine consolation prize. And who knows how Paul will look when the MSM is done with them?

Don’t anybody tell Republicans that Paul could just up and take the Constitution Party nod instead. That reminds me; I have one gripe with Johnson:

The Libertarian Party nominee will be on the ballot in all 50 states - as he was in 2008, and I will offer a principled alternative to the Republican and the Democrat.

The LP was actually on 46 state ballots in 2008, and it didn’t make the ballot in D.C. Barr’s campaign was the buzziest LP candidacy since, well, Ron Paul’s candidacy in 1988. But as libertarians got a stronger foothold in the GOP and in pop culture, the LP was drained. (Since 2008, I watched one friend who worked for the LP get a better-paying job at Andrew Napolitano’s Fox Business show, and other activists get sucked into the Americans for Prosperity orbit.)

That’s quite a lot of words to make a simple point: You may not hear much about Johnson anymore. The bandwith for a libertarian third party candidacy after four years of a Democratic president is limited, just like it was in 1980. That year, instead of a breakthrough, the Ed Clark/David Koch* ticket utterly failed to stop the rush of libertarian activists into Ronald Reagan’s GOP. Would Johnson have better luck with Democratic voters, dissallusioned Obama-ites, running on the familiar LP platform of empire-ending and drug legalization? Maybe. But that’s what all the LP candidates before Barr were supposed to do.

*Yes, that David Koch