With the escalating disenfranchisement of voters, the possibility of a prominent third party candidate gaining national attention has become a popular topic. As one of the few parties with ballot access in all 50 states, the Libertarian Party is increasingly drawing the attention of independent voters. Those interested in learning more about the party were provided with the first ever nationally-televised Libertarian Party debate Friday night on Fox Business News.
Hosted by FBN anchor and self-avowed libertarian John Stossel, the debate featured the three primary candidates seeking the nomination for the Libertarian Party: Owner and Editor of The Libertarian Republic, Austin Petersen; cyber security entrepreneur, John McAfee; and the party's 2012 nominee and former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson.
Much like any other debate involving representatives of a similar ideological background, there were not many disagreements on most issues. All three candidates found common ground on a myriad of topics: ending the War on Drugs, scaling back the welfare state, following a Constitutionally-constrained foreign policy, abolishing the death penalty, and supporting the rights of same-sex couples to marry.
The most humorous common ground involved answering the question, “Trump or Clinton?” The question was premised with the presumption that none of the candidates on stage existed so they couldn’t vote libertarian. Petersen preferred “to remain non-existent” and McAfee equated the choice to stating his personal preference between, “Measles or a bladder infection.”
But they didn't always agree. Their differences were best characterized by Gov. Johnson’s own words: “The devil is in the details.”
Austin Petersen—The Young Contender
Petersen offered a youthful and idealistic pitch for libertarianism—one that empathically emphasizes a limited role of government in the daily lives of American citizens. In a phone interview prior to the debate, Petersen challenged the party front-runner on his commitment to libertarian ideals. “When it comes to subsidies or intervention in the marketplace, Governor Johnson is arguing for more big government solutions than I do," he stated.
Petersen is the youngest of the group, just recently celebrating his 35th birthday. When confronted to address his youthful inexperience (Stossel jokingly claimed he looks 12 years old), Petersen did not hesitate to recite the ages of prominent Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776: Jefferson (33), Madison (25), and Alexander Hamilton (18). “It was young men who founded this country, and young people who will restore it,” Petersen emphatically declared.
Petersen played well to the younger audience. Simply imagine the appeal of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012, but if the former congressmen was 45 years younger and on the cover GQ magazine. (“Don’t hate because I’m young and pretty,” Petersen quipped with a smirk.) The majority of Petersen's comments were followed with boisterous applause.
Petersen also borrowed heavily from Paul’s policy and philosophical playbooks. Petersen recommended issuing letters of marque and reprisal as a response to ISIS, ultimately creating an international bounty on the heads of prominent terrorist leaders — something Paul offered as a Constitutionalist approach to fighting terrorism back in 2007.
John McAfee—The Enigmatic Jester
John McAfee walked the line between existential philosopher and international man of mystery. Often answering questions with questions (“What are drugs?”), McAfee hedged many of his responses in brief, nondescript one liners.
Where McAfee gains his peculiar allure is his questionable past, a topic that was brought up during the debate. He was a person of interest in the murder of his next door neighbor, detained in Belize for alleged involvement in drug manufacturing, fled to Guatemala after claiming to have been blackmailed and tortured in Belize, and arrested for driving under the influence of Xanax. In all fairness, he was only prosecuted for the last crime which he owned up to as the “most foolish and stupid thing I have ever done”.
The only time McAfee demonstrated a detailed knowledge of any issue involved his wonkish response to intelligence gathering as a potential proactive answer to terrorist threats. Recommending the use of pattern detection as a means to avoid the use of more intrusive forms of surveillance, McAfee claimed, “We should know well in advance of every terrorist plot, but we do not. If we do, we don’t seem to tell anybody.” He also elaborated about cyber warfare with China, and the United States being decades behind their technological capabilities.
Gary Johnson—The Elder Statesman
Playing upon his actual executive experience, Johnson offered more nuanced and pragmatic solutions to hotly-contested issues. As an example, in response to Petersen’s calls to “remove all government” from marriage equality issues, Johnson suggested the path of least resistance: As was achieved by the Supreme Court, the most efficient means to marriage equality was to simply recognize the right to marry between all consenting adults, as opposed to removing and reforming the thousands of fragmented laws that already existed in each state.
Johnson was not eager to represent libertarian puritanism on stage. He didn't like the suggestion of cutting all foreign aid and suggested he would "remain open minded" about possible legislation that addressed the "gender gap" in income inequality.
In addition to pragmatism, Johnson wasn’t afraid to challenge the traditional stigma of “appearing presidential.” When asked about his marijuana use as a possible distraction, he responded simply, “I’m one of 130 million in that category.”
Johnson also referenced his high ranking in national polls. Currently polling in double digits in several prominent polls, he presents the best chance to meet the 15% requirement codified by the Commission on Presidential Debates to appear on the same debate stage as the major party candidates in the fall.
The most contentious moment during the debate came when Petersen challenged Johnson on businesses’ ability to discriminate and choose who they do business with. Presented with a hypothetical situation involving a Jewish baker being obligated to bake a Swastika-adorned cake for a wedding of Nazi sympathizers, Johnson floundered in his explanation of why the baker should be forced to bake the cake. It was the only response that received a booing disapproval from the audience.
Petersen fired back immediately, claiming Johnson’s response violated basic libertarian principles. “You must allow the marketplace to work,” he proclaimed. “The government cannot stamp out bigotry.”
As could be observed during this particular moment (and judging by the response to it online), it is apparent that the race to the Libertarian Party's nomination is primarily between Petersen and Johnson. Though an interesting candidate, McAfee appears to lack the ability to inspire much groundswell.
However, much can change leading up to the Libertarian National Convention on May 26 in Orlando.
All three candidates will meet again for a follow up debate on FBN, which will be televised on April 8.