By Jeremy Young
Instead of finishing what I was supposed to be doing tonight, I went ahead and watched this entire debate. Here are my thoughts on what I saw and heard. Interested readers should know that I’m a supporter of third parties but not a Libertarian, so my interest here is to have the strongest possible Libertarian win the Presidential nomination. I’m not an expert in Libertarian ideology, so I’ll leave issues of that sort up to real Libertarians and just tackle the presentation aspects of the candidates.
I was excited to see this debate because it’s the first time all five of the serious candidates have shared a stage. I think these will in fact be the only five serious candidates except for 1) last-minute entrants or 2) Wayne Root, who has sort of been running a shadow campaign all along. Which is to say, I think we’ll have these five and no others for at least the next few months.
First of all, I think Libertarians can feel confident in the fact that this is a field full of actual ideological Libertarians. Lee Wrights and Roger Gary are what you might call “pure” Libertarians; I doubt anyone in the party would find them deviating from the party line in any significant way. RJ Harris, Carl Person, and Bill Still are all Libertarian-oriented people. When they deviate from the party line on occasion, they are being heretical Libertarians, not impostors. I know there has been some concern about Harris because he ran in a Republican primary, but my sense is that he was and is by and large a Libertarian ideologically. (I wonder how the Republicans reacted when he told them he wanted an immediate withdrawal from all foreign wars?) This is a big difference from 2008, where some of the major candidates were only Libertarians if you could shoehorn their records into a Libertarian box (Gravel) or if you believed they were completely different people from what they’d been five years earlier (Barr, Root).
That said, I do think that Gary and Person are non-starters. Gary seems like a nice man and a fine Libertarian, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse debate performance in a third-party presidential campaign. Gary’s presentation was slow and halting, even in his opening and closing statements (which appeared unrehearsed). He seemed old, which is partly because he was the oldest candidate there, but he’s not significantly older than Still, who seemed much more chipper. Gary repeatedly stopped to haggle with the moderator about meaningless issues. His discussion of his Mexican friends was…dated, to say the least. (On the other hand, he declared his support for an almost completely open border, which I suspect will surprise a lot of Libertarians.) He showed absolutely no improvement from the MA debate last month. Overall, his presentation seemed lazy and sloppy. He even stated that he didn’t expect even to visit all 50 states, let alone campaign there. I don’t know why he’s such a poor candidate — his party pedigree certainly speaks highly for him — but if he can’t step it up, he’s going to be a non-factor in this race.
Person gave a somewhat better presentation, but yet again was done in by his crackpot ideas — and I mean crackpot from a Libertarian perspective, not from my perspective. His campaign strategy apparently consists of terraforming a town of 10,000 people — in what, the three months after the convention? — using some sort of crazy Libertarian media strategy that would produce universal employment there, then leveraging the media coverage of this miracle into a national campaign. Um, good luck with that, Carl. He repeatedly rambled and strayed off topic in the debate. Again, even if I didn’t have serious reservations about the company he keeps, I’d consider Person a non-factor in the race.
The remaining three candidates — Wrights, Harris, and Still — all presented themselves very well. I think any of them would be a credit to the LP as Presidential candidates. At the same time, they also present three clearly different approaches to the race. Wrights would focus on the war, Harris on freedom and liberty issues, Still on money and finance. Wrights would run an Internet-based strategy, Harris would focus on Oklahoma (where he has some name recognition, and expects to get ballot status for the first time in over a decade) and battleground states, Still would leverage his own following and connect with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Of the three, Wrights definitely laid claim to the mantle of “pure” Libertarian standard-bearer in this debate. He’s clearly spent a lot of time with a debate coach, and the results were like night and day compared to his performance in the MA debate last month. It’s hard to believe that just last month he was as bad a public speaker as Roger Gary. (His opening statement still needs work, though.) Wrights displayed an engaging speaking style, well-rehearsed answers to many questions, and a supple ability to think on his feet and to come up with creative answers to difficult questions. He’s also beginning to draw contrasts between himself and other candidates — particularly Harris and Still, whom he clearly considers his main competition at this point. All in all, a very impressive performance by Wrights that left me thinking he could be an effective Chuck Baldwin-style candidate instead of the halting mutterer I was afraid he’d stay.
Harris presented himself with an air of confidence that suggests he’s the frontrunner, which, right now, I suppose he probably is. He’s clearly benefited from running a major-party campaign and participating in debates with seasoned politicians; his speaking style was measured, articulate, and polished. Some of his rhetoric was aimed at Tea Party types rather than Libertarians — I thought his comparison of himself with George Washington at the beginning wasn’t appropriate for this crowd — but overall, I was impressed with how well he fit in with the lifelong Libertarians. I also thought he handled the abortion issue effectively. He dodged about a bit, but essentially said that while he personally is really upset by abortions, he thinks the decision should be up to the states. That’s not exactly a mainstream Libertarian view, and Wrights called him on it, but it’s Ron Paul’s position, and as such I think a lot of Libertarians might find it acceptable. Meanwhile, those of you with bad memories of Barr and Root will be happy to hear that Harris came out unequivocally against foreign aid (including, specifically, for Israel — which Roger Gary strangely disagreed with him about), unequivocally against all foreign interventions, and unequivocally against the drug war. Given Harris’ definite right-Libertarian lean, I can see him becoming the candidate of the Starr/Root faction of the LP in the event that Root doesn’t run. This actually wouldn’t be a bad thing, as I think Harris would be more palatable to other Libertarians than just about any other candidate that faction could come up with.
Then there’s Bill Still. Frankly, I was kind of blown away by what I saw from him at this debate. Certainly there were moments where he looked like some guy who’d wandered into a Libertarian Presidential debate and didn’t know what the heck was going on, but I’m going to go ahead and forgive him for all of that given that he’s basically only been in the race for a week. There were other moments, though, where I saw flashes of a magnetic, charismatic speaker who knows Libertarian financial policy like the back of his hand and who might turn out to be the most compelling Libertarian presidential nominee in years. One minute he was reading his opening statement off his laptop like it was a teleprompter, the next he was ad-libbing with gracious humor, the next he was arguing loudly with Wrights about Libertarian priorities. He does have some real deviations from Libertarian orthodoxy — he opposes gutting Social Security because it wouldn’t be possible politically, he wants state banks to issue currency (and isn’t a goldbug), he said he “probably” supports the Fair Tax — but what’s interesting is that they’re eccentric deviations, not ones that suggest he would be a better fit for some other party. He seemed exceedingly raw as a candidate, as indeed he is, but if he’s willing to put in the hard work of running a campaign and developing strategies and issue policies (as Wrights and Harris are doing), he could end up being the best of the bunch. I tend to think he may have the Mike Gravel problem that he has no natural constituency in the party — too many deviations for the Radicals, too radical on fiscal policy for the Reformers — but if he can generate some support, he might find himself getting tapped as a compromise candidate if one of the sides finds itself without a standard-bearer.
Overall, I was quite heartened by what I saw in the debate. Before watching it, I thought the party had one serious and well-organized candidate (Harris) who wasn’t really a Libertarian. Now, I think there are three such candidates, and all of them are Libertarian to some degree. I think any of them would be a good choice for the party in 2012.