Susan J. Demas: Ready for its Closeup? Libertarians Court the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary Crowds

 Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson

This column appeared in Dome Magazine.

ORLANDO –– In between taking the kids to Disney World and cooling off from the 90-degree heat in the pool last weekend, I had fun the only way I know how.

I spent some time with folks attending the Libertarian National Convention.

With Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, the Libertarian Party has sparked a lot more interest from conservative voters desperately searching for an alternative. Even some disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters may jump ship if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, as is widely expected.

On Sunday, Libertarian vice presidential nominee William Weld tried to appeal to the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary crowds, which requires some serious ideological gymnastics.

“Anybody who’s economically responsible –– I won’t even say conservative –– and socially inclusive –– I won’t even say liberal — could be comfortable voting for us. That’s a lot of people,” Weld said at the convention.

So far, Libertarians aren’t having much luck with prominent Democrats, who are alienated by their isolationist, anti-tax and anti-social safety net platform, despite their liberalness on social issues and immigration. But rank-and-file Sanders supporters –– some of whom don’t have ties to the Democratic Party and believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the election is being stolen from him –– may be better targets.

There have already been a few Republican defections of note. Longtime GOP strategist Mary Matalin, a key adviser to former President George H.W. Bush, registered as a Libertarian this year, arguing the two-party system is failing. (She’s a charter member of the “Never Hillary” contingent, even as her husband, Democratic strategist James Carville, is a long-time Clinton loyalist).

Former Republican state Rep. Lorence Wenke is now running as a Libertarian in the 6th Congressional District against once-moderate U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph). It’s a good fit, as Wenke’s big issues have always been cutting government retirement liabilities and supporting LGBT rights.

And, of course, the Libertarians just nominated two former moderate GOP governors for their presidential ticket: Gary Johnson of New Mexico* and Weld of Massachusetts.

Johnson, the 2012 presidential nominee who garnered 1 percent of the vote, has a longer history as a Libertarian. He follows the party line, railing against the national debt, foreign wars and government spending. But it’s his longtime pro-marijuana legalization stance that’s made him a cult figure and helped attract some younger supporters.

Weld, on the other hand, is a newcomer who took fire for being a big-government governor who supported gun-control measures (apparently, Libertarians don’t spend much time in Massachusetts, where that’s exactly what voters want). But he was certainly the most prominent VP pick and Libertarians decided to be practical, nominating him on the second ballot.

The two major headlines from the convention underscore the two paths Libertarians can take in 2016.

The first is that a Johnson/Weld ticket could finally push the party into the mainstream. Johnson took 10 percent in a recent Fox News survey and there’s hope he could eventually hit 15 percent, the threshold needed to appear on the national debate stage (assuming Trump agrees after another likely round of irrational demands aimed at cable news coverage).

Prominent Republicans like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have already championed libertarian economic principles, which has won them a wider audience. (Unlike true libertarians, these Republicans are cheerful big-government backers when it comes to restrictions on abortion and LGBT rights, however). 

But the second big story was Libertarian Party chair candidate James Weeks doing a striptease (yes, set to music), which, naturally, went viral. That’s the wacky Libertarian Party most of us know and love. One of the biggest running media jokes was that there were more people in Chewbacca costumes at the convention than at the new “Star Wars” attractions at Disney (for the record, that wasn’t true).

Regardless, it’s not clear that the Libertarian Party is ready for its closeup yet. At a recent presidential debate, Johnson was booed for supporting driver licenses and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Those are eminently mainstream positions –– but they are in conflict with doctrinaire libertarianism.

To really make an impact in this election, Libertarians would probably have to become “Republican Lite,” which could alienate the party faithful. And that still doesn’t win over far-left Sanders supporters.

Building a major political party in America is tougher than it looks.

* Corrected

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.