Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Conor Friedersdorf wants people to take Gary Johnson's presidential campaign more seriously.  He's right about this:
Here's the thing about politicians and their initial rise to national attention: it's often a phenomenon driven by elites. 
Actually, I would say it's always, not often, driven by elites.   Party elites, generally -- not the press, who mostly just amplify what party insiders are saying (in this, we should count the Bill Kristols of the world who make up the partisan press as party insiders, not as part of the neutral media).  And while I think that Friedersdorf makes an excellent point in bashing GOP insiders -- he should have specified the governors -- for anointing George W. Bush in 2000, on Gary Johnson I think Friedersdorf is simply out of step with what Republicans want:
...a successful two-term Republican governor with a credible small government record, a demonstrated commitment to civil liberties, skepticism about foreign wars, a longstanding determination to right America's fiscal ship, evidence of competent management skills in the public and private sectors, and an utter lack of ugly populist rhetoric during the whole of his substantial time in public life. You'd think he'd be a God send for tea partiers and civil libertarians...
Civil libertarians, sure, but how many Republicans fit into that category?  As for Tea Party types...I'm certainly not of the impression that they're (collectively) marked by a commitment to civil liberties, skepticism about foreign wars, or hostility to ugly populist rhetoric.  If that's the party that Friedersdorf wants the GOP to be, I think he's going to be disappointed.

At any rate, I'm more interested in the follow-up conservation between Marc Ambinder and Friedersdorf.  Ambinder, I think, correctly points out that the media's role (and here I'm talking, as I think Ambinder is, about the neutral, traditional press) is reactive.  They'll ignore candidates until and unless those candidates achieve some of the marks of Serious: Ambinder mentions grassroots success, but there's also fundraising , endorsements, and general word-of-mouth among party insiders.  But I disagree about Ambinder's insistence (and Friedersdorf's regret) that candidates must "sparkle" to get noticed by the press.  Well, mostly disagree.  For the most part, "sparkle" is caused by success, not the other way around.  Now, that's not absolutely's hard to tell what makes up the good political skills that allow a Barack Obama or a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton to impress insiders.  But we do know that plenty of presidential also-rans, people such as Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson and Jack Kemp and Bruce Babbitt, had plenty of "sparkle" in the right circumstances; they just couldn't, for all kinds of understandable reasons, win the support of party insiders for President of the United States. 

The point is that Gary Johnson isn't a hopeless case because he's not good on TV; he's a hopeless case because his issue positions make him unacceptable to the most important groups within the Republican Party, and he doesn't bring anything to compensate for that.  Which no doubt stinks if you want a different GOP than the one that actually exists in 2010.  Now, it may be that Johnson can mobilize new groups to enter the Republican Party and start to change it...that sort of thing happens to American political parties all the time, in presidential and lower-level nomination battles.  But as of now, I'd say that the nomination process does a fairly good job of allowing parties to work together to nominate candidates who are responsive to who those parties are, and the problems that Johnson faces have to do with substance, not process.


  1. Gary Johnson was an outsider candidate when he won the nomination in New Mexico, and he beat the establishment candidate who wss running for re-election. One thing I will say for him and some of his crazy ideas: When he was Governor, he only did the things he said he would do when he was campaigning, and he didn't do any of the things he said he wouldn't do.

  2. Sounds like an interesting guy: ethical, sane, and completely non-muslim!

  3. In the spirit of economic factors overriding other election inputs, it seems to me that networking acumen is the key to the nomination process. Sparkle surely doesn't hurt, though networking does seem to trump sparkle. (E.G. its a good thing hanging chads made the 2000 election famous; otherwise it may have been remembered as history's most sparkle-free election. However, there must be a major networking advantage being a 2nd generation Gore or a 3rd generation Bush).

    We agree that Hillary Clinton is just about the antithesis of sparkle, yes? How did she get thisclose to the nomination? The networking power of the Clinton brand, though to be honest she herself had been building that network long before WJC got to the Oval Office. Hillary almost made it but for outsider Obama, who wrote a book (The Audacity of Hope), the funniest part of which was a phony lament that big-time politics required so much networking...he wished he didn't have to press so much flesh and curry so much favor, but....

    I could be totally wrong here, this is pretty much just stream-of-consciousness writing. But if networking is the key - what does that say about Palin's political fortunes? She seems well-networked, but unlike the rest of the characters in this narrative, she seems not to have tried all that hard (other than where money was to be made). Another curious aspect to Palin, it seems to me.

  4. If David Patreaus asks for the Republican nomination -- granted, it doesn't look like he will, but if he does he will get it -- I can easily see Gary Johnson as his running mate.

  5. CSH- I dunno, I'd say Hillary had plenty of "sparkle". She wasn't nearly as charismatic as Obama (or her husband), but she could give good speeches sometimes, did well in debates, and had historical factors on her side (first woman President, former first lady, etc.) If you want the antithesis of sparkle, it's John Kerry (though I guess even he had the war hero stuff). And he got the nom through networking, just like you say (most importantly, having Kennedy vouch for him everywhere).

    As for Palin, I don't know that I'd call what she does networking. She's made some endorsements, but hasn't turned those into a close working relationship with anyone, and the only one that might matter for her later is Nicki Haley in South Carolina. But she hasn't been recruiting party operatives, or trying to get opinion-makers to change their mind on her. Of course, it's not yet time for the first one, and it doesn't seem like the opinion makers are against her enough to worry about the second. But still, she's not going through the networking paces yet.

  6. Interesting clarification on Palin - after I posted the above, I reconsidered whether Palin had "really" networked, or whether networking Palin-style really just means The Fox Network. This is not a new observation; others have noted that Palin's strategy may be to crack the small screen and reach out to the common folk in that (relatively) networking-free manner.

    BTW: John Kerry as the antithesis of sparkle? He didn't have sparkle, but he sorta had...twinkle, a little? I'm stretching, no doubt Kerry is a poor sparkle substitute for that other JFK from Massachusetts, but he must at least beat that bore Gore (which, admittedly, isn't saying a whole lot).

  7. Agreed. The first time I saw Gary Johnson (about 6 years ago) I was very impressed by his political courage and his blunt yet thoughtful and researched positions on this issue. He is a rare politician indeed but not one who would seem to be able to come even close to capturing the Republican (or even the Democratic) nomination for presidency.

    The Republican party appears to demand fairly strict orthodoxy to three themes: 1) economic libertarianism, 2) cultural conformity, and 3) continued supremacy of American military and foreign policy preferences in the world. Huckabee was an impressive candidate and a very good communicator (also great on TV during the campaign) but he flunked #1. Ron Paul flunked #3 and was almost openly ridiculed by those in the party machine. Johnson will have a really hard time passing #2.

    He probably couldn't come close to capturing a Democratic nomination either because he may be a little too friendly to theme #1 and his unashamed defense of his anti-drug war positions would spook the innate cowardice of the Democratic party.


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