Libertarians candidate says all he needs is to debate

WEST LAFAYETTE – During Gary Johnson’s stop recently on “The View,” Joy Behar, a cohost of the ABC roundtable talk show, asked the Libertarian presidential candidate to decide.

“If someone had a gun to your head,” Behar asked the former, two-term New Mexico governor, “would you vote for Hillary or Trump?”

Johnson’s answer: “I would let it go off.”

And on that note — a statement to sum up the national mood, not to mention the underlying tenet of his third-party campaign — Johnson arrived in West Lafayette recebtkt for a public Q&A with Purdue President Mitch Daniels.

In line outside the France A. Córdova Recreational Sports Center, Corey Strain, a Purdue junior from Texas, pondered the same question. He was wearing a light-blue T-shirt featuring the Libertarian’s face, circled by the words: “Feel the Johnson 2016.” This election wasn’t exactly a gun to the head, he figured. Still, what about Johnson’s rhetorical point in general principle?

“This definitely is a lesser-of-two-evils thing,” Strain said. “It’s like, ‘I don’t want this guy. And I don’t want this woman.’ And you start looking around and you find Gary Johnson. … He seems, I don’t know, like an actual person.”

Up and down the queue for the Co-Rec and then inside the gym — where the 1,840 seats set up were more than three-quarters taken — there was almost a desperation for anything other than this guy (Donald Trump) or this woman (Hillary Clinton).

“I’m at the point of, ‘What else do you got?’” said Terry Simons, who took the afternoon off work to drive to West Lafayette from Frankfort. “I know I’m not alone. … That gun thing (Johnson) said? How did Donald Trump put it that one time? ‘What do you have to lose?’”

Johnson was the second presidential candidate to come to Purdue’s Co-Rec gym offering some brand of different in 2016.

In April, Bernie Sanders was trying desperately to stay alive against the established advantages going for Hillary Clinton. During an hour-plus stump speech, hitting on all his greatest hits, Sanders vowed to carry on until the national convention in Philadelphia to make sure his progressive ideas couldn’t be swept aside by a more moderate Democratic Party. He admitted that morning, two weeks ahead of the Indiana primary, that he was “very good at arithmetic” and understood the delegate count wasn’t going his way.

“But you know what?” Sanders asked a capacity crowd gathered before a full complement of national press. “Unusual things happen in politics.”

The math never did fall Sanders’ way.

Johnson’s visit was less of a rally as it was the next installment of Daniels’ Presidential Lecture Series, a Q&A session that typically starts with Daniels serving up the first round of questions before turning the mic over to the audience. (Daniels has invited Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well. Daniels reported that neither has taken him up on the offer.)

The questions from Daniels and the audience took Johnson, who served as governor as a Republican, deep into the weeds of his fiscally conservative, socially moderate and decidedly Libertarian platform. Decriminalization of marijuana. Balanced budgets and reduced spending. His aversion to military intervention for regime change. Fewer regulations that just cost time and money to fulfill. Less restrictive borders and more immigration. An entrepreneur-driven economy.

More than anything, though, was the premise that he offered a landing spot for voters who’d had enough in a season when the divide — #NeverTrump vs. #NeverHillary — was so hard and fast, based on rejection more than affirmation. (The latest on that front: Which candidate detests the other side’s supporters most?)

In the face of that sort of crippling polarization, Johnson called his candidacy a “big, six-lane highway down the middle.”

After watching the audience grill Johnson for more than an hour, Daniels congratulated the crowd for the depth of the questions. And after a dig at a nationally televised gaffe last week — in a question about Syria, Daniels chided, “That’s the one with Aleppo” — Daniels marveled at Johnson’s willingness to offer “intelligent, candid, politically risky, unpredictable answers all apparently grounded in a consistent philosophy.”

Daniels puzzled on that for a moment: “What are you doing in this election?”

The line drew more than laughs in a crowd where a number of shirts touted the Gary Johnson-Bill Weld ticket with a riff on Trump’s motto: Make America Sane Again.

The math Sanders spoke about in that same room wasn’t going to fall Johnson’s way, either, if he couldn’t find a place before a national audience. The only way to do that, in his estimation, was to get on the debate stage against Clinton and Trump.

That was the natural subplot. Johnson latched on to Daniels’ endorsement of a spot for the Libertarian on the presidential debate stage when Trump and Clinton meet Sept. 26.

Johnson was tracking at 10 percent, based on the most hopeful averages of polling listed on his campaign’s website Tuesday. That’s 10 times better than he drew as the Libertarian candidate in 2012. But it’s a long way from the 15 percent needed to secure a third podium, no matter how loudly fans chanted, “Let Gary debate,” at the Purdue Co-Rec.

As for a reprieve of bent rules? Johnson said Daniels was the only member of the Commission on Presidential Debates who had spoken up for a third podium on that stage.

“The only way we’re going to get elected is to be in the presidential debates,” Johnson told reporters after the event. “I think if we were in the presidential debates and 100 percent of America knew who we were that I would be the next president of the United States.”

Johnson said it with a straight face, too.

How did Sanders put it? Unusual things happen in politics.

If anything, Johnson proved Tuesday he can handle a room and handle the questions. He left little doubt that he’d add something to the predictable bombast of a Trump-Clinton debate and to the final two months of the campaign.

Whether America as a whole — as opposed to a university-based crowd laced with Johnson-Weld shirts — would go for him is another question.

Then again, it’s not as if America would have a gun to its head to make Johnson’s prediction come true. But it at least would have one more option in a year that sorely deserves one.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.