Why Gary Johnson Isn't Taken Seriously

Conor Friedersdorf wonders why no one is taking former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson's proto-presidential campaign seriously.

Were our criteria for viable presidential candidates more sane, however, he'd be a strong contender, due to his experience, desire to reform obviously broken policies, apparent lack of disqualifying traits, credibility in principled statements, and alignment with a sizable chunk of the most dissatisfied voters on key issues.

Perhaps Gary Johnson should be taken seriously. Let's not confuse "isn't" with "won't be" or "shouldn't be."  Minds are still open.

As one of the media tastemasters Conor disapproves of, let me share a few thoughts.  

First, there is a chicken and egg problem when it comes to lesser-known candidates. They won't get attention unless the national media picks up on them, but the national media won't detect them unless they get attention.  The media tends to marginalize candidates that meet a baseline standard for qualifications when those candidates haven't crossed the threshold separating the marginal from the serious. So Conor has a point. But. As powerful as the media is, it is not nearly as powerful as it once was. And the media, thank goodness, is fragmented. There are media outlets -- like Reason -- that can serve as the launching pad for a candidacy. And the winnowing power of the elite -- the Gang of 500  -- can't stop them.  

The second "but" is even more important. It is within Gary Johnson's power to become a top-tier presidential candidate. Statements and press releases won't do it. Politics is a contact sport. We elect presidents who have survived political campaigns.  Johnson has plenty of tools available to build a grassroots following.  Doing so requires creativity, work, charm, and a bit of luck, but it does not require the media.  Can Johnson build a coalition of moderate Republicans and young libertarians? He can. Whether he will or won't is not going to be a function of the media relegating him to second-tier status. 

Conor also ignores the visceral dimension of politics. People vote for politicians who sparkle, or who harness their anger; politicians who make them proud to be Republicans ... or proud to be Americans.  This political dimension is related in some fashion to the leadership qualities we expect from a president, although there is not always a correlation between the two. 

The truth is that most every Republican running for president in 2012 will be adequately credentialed, will have a desire to fix things, and will align with most Republicans on issues. 

Finally, to the extent that Johnson IS known nationally, it's because he's the governor who supported the legalization of pot. If he wants to move beyond that stigma -- and it's a stigma because it's a marginal issue -- then he's got to work the problem from both ends of the wick. This will be hard.  First impressions often linger. Newt Gingrich cannot escape the taint of his behavior in the 1990s no matter how hard he tries ... actually, Gingrich's penchant for overstatement is one of his more endearing qualities.