Does Donald Trump even lift, bro?
That was the implied question behind Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson's address to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, as the former two-term New Mexico governor rattled off his various athletic accomplishments -- a lousy strategy if you're crafting a Tinder profile, but it certainly made for an attention-grabbing stump speech.
"I'm a competitive athlete," Johnson, who served as the Libertarian Party's standard bearer in 2012, boasted to several thousand convention attendees. "I've done hundreds of athletic competitions … I'm planning to ride the divide, which is a 3.000-mile unsupported mountain bike race. ... I've done Ironman Hawaii four times."
Sure, Johnson was technically appearing at a forum on the future of conservatism, and sure, Johnson's Antarctic expeditions and hot air balloon hobby didn't exactly have a lot to do with that. But Johnson wasn't there to gab about the 10th Amendment. Johnson was there to let you know that bro skis, that bro mountain bikes, that bro climbed Mount Everest on a broken leg and that bro, in bro's own words, is a "fierce competitor."
Bro wanted you to feel his bicep -- no, really feel it.
"Why is anyone going to want to talk to me if I'm going to be a dolt?" Johnson answered later, albeit coyly, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I do believe I've led a really interesting life."
Doltishness aside, it was certainly different. And it was clear Johnson wasn't just presenting himself as someone who can appeal to a conservative electorate cast adrift by Donald Trump, but as someone who can be the Libertarian Donald Trump by matching the front-runner's boisterous, media-savvy brand of politics. The greatest free market president. A really fabulous disciple of the Austrian School. Just the best. Ayn Rand. John Galt. It's gonna be beautiful. In case his point wasn’t clear enough, consider the Libertarian debate where he called Trump a “pussy.”
Gary Johnson is a kind of John Kasich-Donald Trump hybrid: avuncular, goofy and a little aloof, like the Ohio governor, but with Donald Trump's deeply ingrained sense of how an off-the-cuff style can keep the media's attention.
During a discussion of his open-market plan for health care reform, Johnson envisioned an America teeming with minute-clinics. "If we had a free market model for health insurance, we would have insurance to cover ourselves for catastrophic injury and illness and we would pay-as-you-go in a system that was very, very affordable," he said. "Stitches ‘R' Us! Gallbladders ‘R' Us!"
Johnson is honing his soundbites, and now's certainly the time to do so. The Democratic front-runner is Hillary Clinton, who remains a polarizing figure and has struggled to engender the kind of enthusiasm enjoyed by Bernie Sanders and, previously, by Barack Obama. On the other side of the aisle, establishment and conservative Republicans are suffering a nervous breakdown over the prospect of a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz nomination. A number of prominent lawmakers, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, have already spoken out against Trump's politics, and Cruz is as popular in the Senate as a five-day work week (which is to say, not at all). Cruz's colleague Lindsey Graham literally joked about murdering him.
"Can you believe the state of politics right now?" Johnson exclaimed with almost childlike delight during his interview with The Huffington Post. "Arguably the two most polarizing figures in America, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are going to be the nominees!"
"Trump gets the nomination by appealing to the 30 percent [of GOP voters] who think the scourge of the Earth is Mexican immigration," he added, unsympathetically. "I'm not making any claims that a Libertarian run is going to be any different than it was before, but if there were ever an opportunity, it is now."
The way Johnson sees it, there's a "vast middle" of the electorate that would be drawn to his socially liberal, economically conservative platform and turned off by the polarizing figures that are likely to secure the two main parties' nominations. Sure, maybe Democratic voters will have to stomach his desire to gut entitlements, and Republicans his stated belief that Mexican immigrants aren't ISIS sleeper agents, but Libertarians are banking on an exhausted electorate that won't mind as much.
"I've never said anything as stupid as Trump," Johnson contended.
Johnson, naturally, takes a glass-half-full view, and insists he could work with any Congress. With Democrats, he could pursue agenda items like immigration reform, criminal justice reform and reversing the decline of reproductive rights. With Republicans, he could team up on gutting Obamacare, entitlement reform and corporate tax reform.
"What you're reading is, 'Where's the third party?' The Libertarian Party is going to be the only [third] party on the ballot in 50 states," he predicted.
Johnson anticipates a kind of media snowball effect, with reporters inevitably turning their gaze to his candidacy, either through better-than-expected poll numbers or a natural curiosity about presidential alternatives. Johnson's biggest goal for the general election campaign is to gain a spot in the debates, and he is suing the Presidential Debate Commission over its 15 percent threshold for admittance.
"[The media] will probably [first] focus on the marijuana thing like they've always done," Johnson speculated about the narrative surrounding his campaign. "Unlike four years ago, now you've got 58 percent of Americans supporting legalizing marijuana, so in my opinion if that gets focused on, then OK, that's a good start."
"When [Republican Nebraska Senator] Ben Sasse comes out and says, 'I'm going to vote for the third party if Donald Trump is the nominee, and other Republicans are saying the same, what is he thinking? He's thinking Libertarian!" said Johnson. "[T]he table is set."
Before Johnson can implement his big-tent strategy, he needs to secure the Libertarian Party's nomination, and says he is "flying low" until the party finalizes its nominee during its Memorial Day convention in Orlando.
It shouldn't be too difficult. His chief opponent is anti-virus software magnate John McAfee, who last year was arrested for driving under the influence and for possessing a firearm under the influence. In 2012 he was named as a person of interest in a Belizean murder investigation and promptly dropped off the grid, resurfacing a month later in Guatemala, where he was ultimately deported to the U.S. Even by the Libertarian Party's eccentric, anything-goes third party ethos, nominating a guy who has had to replenish a go bag seems a bit far-fetched.
And if the Libertarians are trying to offer a credible alternative to Donald Trump, choosing a seasoned state executive over a paranoid survivalist who at this very moment might be slowly emerging from a swamp in full camouflage while gripping a knife with his teeth would seem to be the rational choice. Other candidates include an actor, a lawyer who likes to appear in Civil War regalia and a self-described "Spiritual Visionary since June 2006."
However, it's clear that if Johnson hopes to offer himself as a serious alternative to the Democratic and Republican nominees, he'll have to polish his presentation a bit. During a discussion about the late Antonin Scalia's Supreme Court seat, Johnson -- who believes the Senate should consider President Barack Obama's nominee -- conceded he couldn't name the remaining eight sitting Supreme Court justices. Asked about his plan to reform Social Security, he suggested three proposals, but could only articulate two: raising the retirement age and creating personal investment accounts.
"Gosh there's one other one, what is it?" Johnson mused before trailing off. The final proposal -- means testing for Social Security recipients -- came to Johnson several minutes later.
To his credit, he was able to discuss the proposal in detail, but if he does make it into the general election debates, there will be no two-minute lags, and SNL's writers would love nothing more than a pro-weed third party candidate who forgets things.
Then again, this is the Donald Trump election, and Johnson's eccentricities and weaknesses might actually be strengths. He's certainly ready to measure hands.