I met Gary Johnson, the somewhat-surging Libertarian Party candidate for president, years ago in one of those beautiful Western settings full of mostly awful people at the time — that is, lobbyists and various sycophants who attach themselves to any gathering of power.
He was then the Republican governor of New Mexico, a rare politician with a glib sense of humor, rolling his eyes as his fellow Western politicians sucked up to bolo-tied suits from the oil industry. We talked mostly about marathons and mountains; he's run the 26-mile race in under 3 hours, and climbed the apex of the planet, Mount Everest, as well.
I liked him instantly. And as I've followed him since then, my regard for Johnson has grown. Now that he's running for president, and polling at 15 percent or better in at least 15 states, would I ever vote for him?
Not a chance. And this was before he blanked out on national television on Thursday in a question about Syria. Johnson favors many things a thoughtful independent could agree with — a less interventionist foreign policy, an end to the insanity of the drug war, calling out Donald Trump for his racism. And he favors many bad things: no immediate action to counter climate change, health care cuts to the most vulnerable, repealing Wall Street regulations.
A voter of conscience, in a normal year, could go for Johnson and feel okay about it. But this year, in a tight election, any vote by an independent or a Democrat for Johnson could burden that citizen with a lifetime of guilt for handing the world over to Trump. His presidency could "lead to the end of civilization," as his own ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz has said.
Commendably, Johnson has stopped using pot during his run for the White House. "I want to be completely on my game," he says. But too often, he offers the stoner shrug when asked what he stands for, saying you should just Google him. When you Google him, you're likely to find something about pot and Googling him.
That's not a serious campaign. But again, I find Johnson personally refreshing, as he showed with his reaction to the Syria gaffe, saying that his response had removed "any doubt that I'm human."
Well then, what about Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate? She's polling in the low single digits, but she still might get more votes than the 2.9 million that Ralph Nader received in 2000. You remember those Nader voters who insisted there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? The world is a far sadder, far more tragic place, in part because the Naderites helped to tip the balance to a man who, like Trump, is cocksure of only one thing — his ignorance. Forget about the mess of Florida. In just one state, New Hampshire, the Nader vote was enough to give the presidency to Bush.
Stein said she would put Edward Snowden in her Cabinet, because, I guess, there would then be no state secrets at all! Her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, has called President Barack Obama an "Uncle Tom." Stein is a protest candidate, recently arrested for protesting. It's an honorable role, and I wish her well in future protests.
I get that a majority of Americans think the current two-party system is failing us. Clinton is not inspiring. Trump is a monster who lies the way some people clear their throat. But if you want failure, give Trump the White House. If the global emergency of climate change is your issue, as it certainly is for many Stein supporters, your Green Party vote may be just enough to ensure that the man who calls climate change a hoax hastens the end of nature as we know it. You may feel good about it; the planet will not.
I asked Bill McKibben, who may one day win a Nobel Prize for his decades of alarm-sounding about life-altering changes to Earth, what a progressive drawn to a third-party candidate should do.
"My thinking is that the point of elections is not to find a savior," said McKibben, who was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders. What matters is the movement toward change, he said. But this year is different. Trump "is bad in a unique (in American presidential history) way that scares me to the marrow."
And that's the crucial point. Trump should scare anyone with a brain and a heart. Just last week, he showed again how far he would move the United States to the dark side, gushing about his soul mate Vladimir Putin, and dreaming of a plunder force under our flag, stealing oil from the Mideast. In years to come, every American voter will be held to account for what they did in 2016. There's no free pass.
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