The “Gary Johnson rule”, the political economy of election bias, and fundamental principles

Lynne Kiesling

A cynical, but I think accurate, political economy analysis for a Friday afternoon: One of the declared presidential candidates in the Republican primary is a successful two-term Governor of a majority Democrat state who retains a positive rating in his home state. In that office this candidate improved the fiscal standing of the state government (including Medicare and Medicaid), and made the regulatory environment for business more transparent and certain, resulting in new economic activity in the state that consequently created jobs in the state. This candidate also started a successful business as a young man, and worked to grow that business to over 1,000 employees by creating economic value for his customers. It’s common knowledge that successful governors typically make good presidential candidates, so this candidate is doing well in the campaign, of course …

… or not. In the current climate with media corporations both conducting polls and co-sponsoring debates with state Republican Party branches, this candidate has only been invited to participate in two of the debates held in 2011. Every debate has different candidate inclusion rules, determined by the media corporation in conjunction with the state party. Conveniently, these rules seem always to exclude Gary Johnson.

Thus what has become known as the “Gary Johnson rule”, as articulated by Dave Weigel as he watched the inclusion rules evolve from August through October, excluding Johnson (and Buddy Roemer, also an experienced, serious person) each time.Here’s how Dave summarizes the remixed Gary Johnson rule for the October debate:

Let’s hand it to the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and Dartmouth University: They have figured out a debate invite schematic that goes beyond polls to squeeze Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer out of tomorrow’s debate. The rules:

     1) Received measurable popular support in a range of national polls.
     3) Is a legally qualified candidate for the Republican nomination for president.

Johnson has done both, and Roemer has at least done the second. Good so far.

     2) Campaign reported at least half a million dollars raised in its FEC filing through the 2011 second quarter reporting period.

Neither Johnson nor Roemer has done that. They’re out, no matter what else they do. Theoretically, sure, they could pass this fundraising marker for a future debate. How else to keep them barred?

     4) Participated in at least three nationally televised Republican presidential debates during the 2012 election cycle.

Brilliant! The proof that Johnson and Roemer shouldn’t share a stage with other Republicans is that they haven’t been invited to other debates. In Johnson’s case, he’s participated in two debates — he just misses the cut! Newt Gingrich, who has willed his campaign from “joke” to “interesting joke” simply on the strength of free media debate appearances, is calling for Johnson to be included. That won’t matter for tomorrow, but maybe it’s a break in this bizarre 2012 sideshow.

You don’t have to be a particularly astute or attentive campaign follower to see the Catch-22 of the system here — if you don’t poll well enough then you’re a fringe candidate and not worth including in debates, but if you aren’t included in debates then you won’t have the recognition and familiarity that could increase your polling, but because you haven’t polled well or been included in debates then the media corporations can choose to exclude you from their polls, and so on, and so on … Just this week, Johnson’s name has been excluded from the ballot for the Illinois straw poll that closes tomorrow, and he has been excluded from next week’s debate in Michigan co-sponsored by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party.

As Conor Friedersdorf said in June when he wrote about CNN’s exclusion of Johnson from the debate they co-sponsored, “[t]he cable network is substituting opinion polls for judgment, and preventing voters from getting to know the former two-term governor .” In fact, Friedersdorf (who has written about Johnson frequently at The Atlantic), Weigel, and a variety of writers at Reason are the bulk of the national media coverage his campaign has received. For additional in-depth and well-written articles on Johnson and his campaign, I also recommend this Outside magazine article from November 2011 (Outside’s journalism is underappreciated) and this GQ article, also from November 2011.

Johnson’s policy positions also play a prominent rule in this story about exclusion from corporate media debates and polls. His economic policy positions are consistently fiscally responsible. While he supports the Fair Tax proposal and I can make a lot of criticisms of it, if he were to introduce the Fair Tax into the tax reform debate that will have to happen in Washington in 2012 and beyond, it would improve the ideas likely to be on the table and perhaps improve the ultimate outcome.

But what really distinguishes Johnson, even from Ron Paul, are his social policy positions: drug legalization to reduce domestic and international gang violence and reduce the social disruption and fiscal expense of prison, pro-immigration, anti-war, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage. Johnson is no social conservative; in fact, I take a page from the 18th-century Enlightenment book and claim that Johnson is a model of the kind of toleration that was a bedrock principle on which the United States was founded.

This combination of economic prudence and social toleration makes Johnson the kind of candidate that could fit the Buckley rule: nominate a Republican candidate who is conservative but can still win the general election. If you look at American culture (including the recent Gallup poll showing that a majority of the population supports marijuana legalization), our current political upheavals, and our history, that combination of economic prudence and social toleration is what can be a winner for Republicans (and, in full disclosure, would induce me to vote Republican in a presidential election for the first time in my long life). If that’s true and the ultimate objective is to win the general election, why isn’t a candidate with these traits receiving establishment support?

My hypothesis on that question has two parts:

  • The media: Corporate media operate with a simplistic, static, binary, didactic model — good/bad, red/blue, R/D, conservative/liberal, economic/social, rich/poor. They can’t fit Johnson in a box that makes sense to them in that model, and the Catch-22 described above absolves them of any responsibility or accountability for trying to understand and communicate his combination of policy positions.
  • The Republican establishment: neither the Republican National Committee nor the state-level party committees can see beyond the “fire up the base” strategy because their perspective is so strongly determined by a small group of large donors, which leads them to concentrate on social conservatism even though it does not necessarily reflect either the broader Republican Party or the priority of issues facing the electorate as a whole in 2012.

First, the media. The flawed binary lens through which they see the world is more the culprit here than “media bias”, because if there is indeed liberal media bias, Johnson’s social policy positions should be attractive to them, no? I think they see politics as a set of caricatures or, if I’m being generous, a set of “ideal types” in the tradition of Max Weber. Smooth-talking middle-of-the-road guy, check. Kind of wacky social conservative woman, check. Experienced establishment politician, check check check check check. Maverick business guy with no professional governance experience, check. Anti-war libertarian conservative, check. Oh, wait, we’ve already put Ron Paul in that box, sorry Gary, we don’t need you to fill that role in our constructed narrative.

And the sad and pathetic thing about this? We the American public let the corporate media get away with this naive, simplistic crap. To paraphrase Mencken, we get the politicians we deserve and the media we deserve, good and hard.

I’m not the first to make that claim, but what about this claim about the RNC, state committees, and the agenda-setting power of large donors? Again, this is not original to me, but is rather a variation on a standard public choice model of regulation and lobbying and agenda-setting. The RNC (and the DNC for the Democrats) establishes rules and regulations; party members have incentives to donate, lobby, and act in other ways to influence those rules and regulations to reflect their personal interests. Those large donors set the agenda.

But here’s the problem, both for the establishment RNC folks and for the Johnson campaign given the current reality: the candidate traits that appeal to those large donors and the candidate traits that appeal to the vast legion of disaffected independents who either voted for Obama in 2008 or voted third party or didn’t vote are not.the.same.traits. In other words, the RNC has a classic Mancur Olson concentrated benefits + diffuse costs => wrong policy choice situation. The kind of voter I have in mind here is the one who voted for Obama in 2008, would vote for Johnson (or Paul) in 2012, but if Romney is the Republican nominee would either not vote or would vote third party. The RNC and DNC party establishments do not place any weight on those voters, and I suggest to you that they don’t place any weight on those voters because they can’t monetize those voters, even though if they put up a candidate that would attract those voters they could see a higher probability of success in the general election.

I do think that the RNC leadership and the state leaders want to see a Republican win in 2012, but through a combination of their own political philosophies and the philosophies of the major donors they look at the Buckley Rule through the lens of wanting to relinquish as little social conservatism as possible and still do that. I think technology might surprise them, though, because even though they can partner with the corporate media to control inclusion and the media narrative, they cannot control social media. They cannot stop Gary Johnson from doing as he did in June, when he posted a video on YouTube of him answering all of the questions from the New Hampshire debate from which he was excluded.

On a more philosophical note, I find this combination of corporate media and donor-driven national party exclusion of candidates like Johnson and Roemer extremely disturbing, and inconsistent with the bedrock principles of freedom, inclusion, representation, and toleration that are the hallmarks of the United States. It’s deeply unjust. At least it comes at a time when we have communication channels and media substitutes for corporate media, and when we have a justifiable deep skepticism and distrust regarding our established political party structures. Even if Johnson doesn’t get included in more debates and doesn’t win the nomination, if his candidacy can help tear down this particular example of crony corporatism, he will have made the world a better place.

8 thoughts on “The “Gary Johnson rule”, the political economy of election bias, and fundamental principles

  1. The murder of babies was never a bedrock principle of our Founding Fathers. There was a reason the Revolutionary War was called in England the Presbyterian Rebellion (or Preacher’s Rebellion), they were mostly men of moral character who would never have condoned murder of an innocent life.

    That’s why the Libertarian party fails, when they have such economic principles backing them up; they don’t have a moral base and reject life as sacred.

  2. Interesting, Lynne. Although i can’t shake the feeling that the current incarnation of the Republican party bears a substantial part of the blame for the demise of centrism, to a greater degree than the media. The fact that $ is flowing to a pretty wacky set of folks who would have been laughed out as fringe candidates just a few cycles ago triggers your point 2, and while debate organizers may be criticized for that rule, it is troubling to see who the establishment Rs are choosing to endorse. Hard to imagine McCain, Bush I, Dole or even Reagan getting support in this environment, and that can’t simply be a problem with the media.

    See, for example: http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/strategist/2011/10/wake_up_commentators_the_most.php

  3. His record as governor, even though Pro-choice himself as he believes this is a decision left to the woman and her family themselves, was 100% consistent with Pro-life principles. He signed in to law several bills in N.M. including parental notification and a late term abortion ban. He believes a woman facing that decision should have all the facts before making a decision. This is not simply a black and white issue. Would you have a child born in to an abusive house? Would you have a rape victim forced to relive the experience every day for 9 months and possibly the rest of their lives? There are many thing in life far worse than death. If guilty and for the reasons expressed by the prosecution in the case, would you want Casey Anthony having another child? Would you want Americans heading to Mexico to have an abortion?

  4. Great article! I’ve been wondering why a liberally biased media wouldn’t want to cover Johnson’s campaign and refused to believe the “they’re afraid he could beat Obama” case. Yours is the best explanation I’ve read. Still one question though – even if the RNC doesn’t want to support Johnson, why are they blocking him? What harm does it do to them to have him in debates and polls?

  5. He sounds like an interesting candidate with good ideas and a consistent attitude to what freedom means, i.e. to be allowed to do things that the majority disapprove of, as long as you do not hurt others.

    I don’t know what the solution is to his lack of exposure, but it could be worst. Here in Europe, where “money” should not decide who can run, the parties in power distribute funds to political parties based on how many votes they got in the previous election. Or they do as in Paris when Chirac was the mayor and a few percent of the money for all building contracts were distributed between all parties.

    With proportional representation, where “ideas and not people” should be what you vote for, the key to becoming a politician is to join the youth wing of a party when you are 15-18. Then you tow the party line for 20-30 years before you reach such a position of influence that you can voice an opinion of your own.

  6. Johnson just doesn’t have the charisma to be a leading GOP candidate now, regardless of his ideas. Perhaps he can step up to it (Ron Paul has upped his game much since the last campaign).

  7. I recommend a call to the FCC and request an investigation into CNBC, CNN and Fox (Fox for Aug 11/Iowa) violating political programming rules. Here’s something from the FCC web site if you want to call them up about Gary Johnson’s exclusion from the debates:

    If you have questions concerning the Federal Communications Commission’s political programming rules with respect to radio, television, cable television, and Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), you can contact the political programming staff by calling their main number at (202) 418-1440 or by e-mailing them at campaignlaw@fcc.gov.

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