Johnson Leaves GOP Primary: What If He Had Been Invited to More Debates?

And another one bites the dust…

Politico is reporting that Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico is dropping out of the Republican primary to run as a Libertarian candidate in the 2012 elections.

Ironically, at a time of national deficit, Governor Gary Johnson is among the few candidates running for president who has actually cut government, but the media has repeatedly cut him from the debate. In the New Mexico statehouse, he vetoed 750 bills, fired 1,200 state employees and left the state with a billion-dollar budget surplus, which is the sort of toughness that Republicans claim to long for, but Johnson has only been invited to two of the nationally televised debates, much to his dismay.

Johnson reportedly expressed frustration that he was not being invited to the debates and that, despite doing better in the polls than Jon Huntsman or several of the other established candidates, he could get no media attention. In early September, Johnson polled higher than Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum, yet he wasn’t invited to the Reagan debate. He polled the same as Herman Cain at one point.

Media attention has been key for this election. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who used the force of his personality and the platform afforded by the mainstream media networks to run for president. For weeks Gingrich lacked organization, and his campaign had defections that seemed to have left it moribund, but he debated his way back into the game. That’s a lot easier to do if you actually get invited to the debates.

To be sure, Johnson has some views well outside of the Republican mainstream, but not out of the mainstream of American public opinion. He supports legalizing marijuana, but so do 50% of American voters. True, he does support the murder of the unborn, which is vastly unpopular in the Republican Party. But excluding a candidate who happens to have views outside of the Republican mainstream would see Ron Paul being excluded, too. He tends to have a foreign policy that few champion outside of the isolationist Right.

Those of us bordering on the conspiratorial will wonder if perhaps the reason Johnson was excluded was to shore up support for the other past libertarian, Ron Paul, or whether or not that was just a happy accident. Unlike Gary Johnson, Paul was actually a libertarian, some 24 years ago. He ran for the Libertarian Party nomination in 1988 and has had the libertarian wing of the Republican primary entirely to himself. Had he faced competition on that front, it is unlikely he could have built the organization that may now propel him past the Iowa caucus.

By contrast, Paul’s social conservative competitors, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum split the vote among themselves, making it still harder for a social conservative candidate to emerge. After Iowa, it seems likely that as many as two and possibly all three of those candidates may drop out, clearing the space once more for social conservative discontent. It simply took too long for the social conservative groups in Iowa to pick a standard bearer.

Of course, part of the problem here is the requirement that presidents must be good debaters, which is a very modern. This idea–that the power of the presidency comes from the power to persuade and use the bully pulpit–comes from the progressive political scientist Richard Neustadt and not from the Constitution. The founding fathers knew well that the power of the presidency might not lend itself to great debaters. Indeed, the only candidate running with what Publius calls “energy in the executive”–the very attribute that the founders prized–is Rick Perry, whose tongue-tied performance or “oops” moments has made its candidacy moribund.

Even the non-candidate candidates would have had a hard time at the debates. It’s hard to see Mitch Daniels, the second coming of Calvin Coolidge, appearing along the others. Chris Christie, for all of his intellectual heft, could appear a tad bullying, while Paul Ryan might appear wonky and boyish. It’s far better to have the ideas discussed and debated than to have the politicians playing the part of media personality.

As Professor Charles R. Kesler, writing in the masterly Claremont Review of Books notes:

For an office designed at least partly with George Washington in mind, debating skills were never a high priority. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces; has the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and cabinet officers (with the Senate’s advice and consent); and wields the veto pen and issues pardons and reprieves at his discretion. But none of these or his few other constitutionally prescribed powers and duties requires him to debate anyone. The tradition of presidential debating is not only relatively new (Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 was the first), it tests an art or aptitude that is irrelevant to the job

Perhaps that’s why Newt Gingrich, who once fashioned himself as a kind of prime minister, has talked his way into front runner status. Perhaps the reason he is falling in the polls is that voters realize that while debate may be at a premium, talk is cheap. If he wins the nomination, Gingrich promises Lincoln-Douglas style debates with President Obama, who we are led to believe is a great debater, like Gingrich. There’s just one problem. Lincoln and Douglas debated for the Senate, not the presidency, and Lincoln, one of our greatest executives, lost that Senate race. So too did Nixon in the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960. It was said that Nixon, with his five o’clock shadow, didn’t look presidential compared to the boyish Kennedy. And, indeed, this argument about “looking” presidential is part of the reason that Obama bested McCain or why Romney, with his graying temples, looks the part of president, even if, perhaps, he doesn’t act it.

Looks aren’t everything. Ideas matter, too, and the debates have proven not to be the proper setting for those ideas being exposed.

There might be some reforms that are possible. Maybe less is more. Maybe fewer candidates on the stage would mean better debates and fewer free-for-alls. Maybe candidates with only double-digits should be allowed into the debates, with a rotating chair for a candidate in the single digits. Who knows? Maybe Shakespeare knows best.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts… As You Like It Act 2, scene 7, 139-143

But there are some parts that seem below the office of president.

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