This election season has left people with some tough choices. In our two-party system, it kind of makes things difficult when a lot of people don’t support either candidate. Consider moderate Republicans: many of them don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton for a bunch of reasons, most of which are ideological, but they also realize that Donald Trump is a terrible alternative for much more basic reasons. “What a shame,” they think, “that neither of the candidates agrees with my ideological views. If only there were someone I could find some common ground with!”
Enter Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico and Libertarian candidate for the presidency. Johnson is not a perfect Trump alternative, but he is at least a fiscal conservative and isn’t as shocking as the Donald. His running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, is also an experienced and moderate politician. So, it’s not that surprising he’s garnered about 10 percent support in recent polling, a lot of it from disillusioned Republican voters who found him a good alternative to Trump. This ticket, these voters thought, is competent and has substantial knowledge about, as Trump’s campaign put it “domestic and foreign policy”. Consequently Johnson garnered substantial interest within the G.O.P., with Mitt Romney calling for his inclusion in the Presidential Debates and our very own Cornell Republicans openly endorsing him.
Then Aleppo happened.
Last week, when asked how he would handle the refugee crisis in the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, Gary Johnson responded, “What is Aleppo?”
To be fair, knowing where (or even what) Aleppo is might not be on everyone’s list of essential knowledge. However, let’s assume Gary Johnson were to become president, and the Secretary of Defense asked him something like, “Should we proceed with the bombing of Aleppo that Obama planned to carry out?” Johnson might be able to deduce from context that Aleppo was a city (although Johnson could have possibly have deduced this in the interview and he apparently did not), but he probably wouldn’t know which one. Some possible answers might be: “Yes, let’s bomb Aleppo,” “No, let’s not”, or “What is Aleppo?”
Based on the interview, he would likely choose the third option (the first two are potentially catastrophic and something Trump might be more likely to do), which makes it doubtful that he could make a good decision in these circumstances.
This situation is clearly a huge embarrassment not only to the candidate but to the people voting for him. You would think that this would be a huge blow to Johnson’s campaign. It kinda puts a hole in the argument that he’s more qualified than Trump (which was his main asset since he’s a third party candidate). Certainly, you might think this makes the Cornell Republicans look a bit foolish for endorsing him.
However, I disagree for two main reasons. Reason #1: Johnson’s gaffe does nothing to change his role in this election. He remains an unpalatable choice for some conservatives due to his liberal social views, but he is not as abhorrent as Trump or Hillary. This quote does not change that. Reason #2: Johnson’s lack of knowledge regarding Aleppo is comparable to any of Donald Trump’s Trump-isms or Bush Jr.’s Bush-isms. It’s really not any worse than proposing to arm Japan with nuclear weapons, which not only demonstrates a lack of regard for history and lack of foreign policy knowledge but key misunderstandings about the state of world politics. Sure, it makes Johnson look a bit worse on an absolute scale, but nobody has been deciding who they’d vote for this general election based on absolutes. Everything is relative in 2016.
There are some other problems, though. Like, will this harm Johnson’s campaign? I can’t really see it helping. I also don’t think too many of Johnson’s voters are involved enough with his campaign that they wouldn’t change their vote if things really go south. That would probably lead them to stay home given that they are already voting third party. I can’t see Johnson supporters voting for Hillary en masse, nor for Trump, since these two are precisely the reason they’re voting Johnson. All the same, it might impress upon some people that Hillary Clinton is far and away the most competent candidate for the highest office in the land.
I don’t expect Johnson’s poll numbers to change much. In polls where “undecided” is an option, perhaps that portion will increase; however, I think Johnson voters are unlikely to start voting for someone else over something so minor. In fact, the real question is why the mainstream press is making such a huge fuss over it. This third-party candidate polling at 10 percent makes a somewhat major gaffe and all of a sudden he’s more prominent than Trump in the news! It’s kind of surreal. Maybe it will even be a good thing: Johnson is definitely getting a lot of exposure, and Trump has proved that even bad press can help your campaign. Perhaps this is why the anchor interviewing Johnson asked if he were serious: this might even be Johnson’s final push to reach the 15 percent approval he needs to get on the presidential debate stage. Granted, Johnson is no Donald Trump, whatever Donald Trump actually is, but Johnson frequently notes that not enough people know what a Libertarian is. Now is our chance to see if he’s right.