Running for president must require an inexhaustible supply of optimism from anyone who does it, to put a on a smiling face through two years of fundraisers, speeches to rotary clubs, trekking through New Hampshire winters and North Carolina summers. But to run as a third-party candidate is to undergo all that unpleasantness with no actual hope of victory at the end of it. Perhaps the only people who are willing to do so have to be slightly delusional. At least, that was the sense one got from watching the Third Party Presidential Debate hosted by the Green Party in Washington, DC, on Sunday evening. Fittingly, the event was moderated by Ralph Nader, a man so unwilling to face the truth that he denies having cost Al Gore the election of 2000 and displays not even a hint of misgiving at his role in that campaign.
The event was held in the back room of Busboys and Poets, a minuscule venue that highlighted the laughability of the assembled candidates’ pretensions that they are seriously vying to be leader of the free world on Tuesday. The Green Party organizers were turning away journalists, even from The Nation, who had failed to RSVP sufficiently far in advance. The fact that I had called ahead and been told on by their own staffer that as a member of the press I would have no problem getting in did not seem to matter. Given their party’s and candidate’s constant whining about being shut out of media coverage, it was ironic to see how inhospitable the Greens are to some of the few reporters who do show interest in their little events. Luckily, a friend who works for Gary Johnson’s campaign helped me get in.
Nader posed a series of questions—often presenting his left-wing views as an objective premise—to the four candidates. For example, Nader demanded to know if the candidates support “corporate welfare.” Remarkably enough, they all said no. The candidates were bizarrely instructed to answer always in descending order, based on the number of states on which they have ballot access. That pecking order went as follows: former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), former Representative Virgil Goode (Constitution Party), former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson (Justice Party). Given that the candidates and Nader strongly agreed that third-party candidates are subject to unreasonable obstacles to get on state ballots, it is odd that they reified appearing on the most ballots as a measure of a candidate’s validity.
The most archetypal third party candidate was surely Gary Johnson. He is sort of the unrestrained id of all third-party candidates everywhere. He bellowed at the top of his lungs, creating an ear-piercing volume when amplified by his microphone in the small room. His opening statement launched immediately into a list of his policy positions with no introduction: “I’m against bombing Iran,” were the first words out of his mouth. “I would repeal the Patriot Act,” he continued. His style—totally lacking in narrative or “I feel your pain" anecdotes—was basically mimicked by all the candidates. They listed litanies of issue stances, rather than pulling them into a unitary case for why they should be elected. Anderson was the only one to even mention his record in public office in his opening statement. (Johnson and Goode did later illustrate points about issues by mentioning policy decisions they had made in office.) It was remarkable, watching the group, to think that any of them had ever actually won a significant elected office.
Most ridiculously, Johnson speculated repeatedly on how he could actually have won the presidency if only the powers that be gave him a fair shot. “If someone gave me $50,000, I think I’d be president,” Johnson asserted, in part of a rambling riff on campaign finance reform. Johnson also complained that the media generally reports the results of polls without including his vote share. “If it were reported that way, I might be the next president of the U.S. because of the “who the Hell is Gary Johnson? factor [of interest that would be generated].” It’s a long way from 6 percent, which is what the poll he mentioned had him at in Ohio, to a national Electoral College victory on that basis.