During the last three presidential election cycles, to the dismay of purists, the Libertarian Party has nominated ex-Republican politicians who offered conventional credibility and name ID in exchange for something a bit less than full subscription to libertarian ideology. The transaction paid off pretty well in 2016, when a ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor William Weld won more than 4 million votes and more than 3 percent of the national popular vote, tripling its prior best performance.
But in 2020, Libertarians are going in a very different direction, best evidenced by Bill Weld’s successor as the party’s veep nominee, Spike Cohen. Cohen, an online media entrepreneur, is best known as the designated running mate of political performance artist Vermin Supreme, the perennial candidate known for wearing a boot on his head and promising all voters free ponies. Supreme, who was a bizarre minor presence in the 2012 and 2016 Democratic presidential contests, took his act to the Libertarians this year, and though he finished third in last weekend’s online presidential vote, his sidekick Cohen won the separate vice-presidential balloting.
The Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, Jo Jorgensen, is a Clemson University psychology lecturer and an example of the entirely earnest ideologues who make up the bulk of rank-and-file party members. Back in 1996, she was the running mate of Harry Browne, the Libertarians’ last presidential nominee before the party started running ex-Republicans like Bob Barr and Gary Johnson. She won the 2020 nomination through a ranked-choice voting process that became unpredictable when yet another ex-Republican pol, Representative Justin Amash, withdrew from the race (an effort was made during the balloting to draft Amash, which he quickly quashed).
Jorgensen and Cohen have the misfortune of carrying the Libertarian banner in a year when a global pandemic has made Americans a bit more socialistic. Perhaps they can strike some political gold with the hard-core opponents of business shutdowns and social-distancing guidelines, though the presence of Trump 2020 banners at nearly all of the major “reopen” protests would suggest these folks already have a candidate. The intense major-party competition is also a problem for the Libertarians, who in 2016 almost certainly got a lot of votes from people who assumed Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag.
But the effort to make the Libertarian Party a viable option without celebrity leadership will perhaps be tested the most by Cohen’s presence on the national ticket. He appears to have completely internalized Supreme’s troll-ish approach to politics, as indicated in an interview earlier this year:
“It’s the system that’s a joke and it treats us as a joke and it treats the idea of having more than two options as a joke.” he explained. “We’re changing the punch line by trolling the system.”
And so, when running for the veep nomination, Cohen trumped Supreme’s free-pony promise (politicians promise people everything, you see) with an extra offer of free cheesy bread and Waffle Houses on every corner. He also added to Supreme’s long-standing pledge to fund time-travel research and then go back to kill Baby Adolf Hitler with a pledge to kill Baby Woodrow Wilson, too.
Let’s just stipulate that Spike Cohen, like Vermin Supreme, is at best an acquired taste. Aside from all the aggressive trolling, he self-identifies as an anarchist. On the positive side, from a seriousness point of view, he does not wear a boot on his head.
Libertarian activist John Vaught LaBeaume told the Washington Post’s David Weigel that the party had missed an opportunity to remain relevant with Amash leading its ticket:
“A clutch of LP poobahs ran off Justin Amash, insisting a sitting Member of Congress be subjected to ‘debates’ where a bunch of unknowns taunted, calling him a fraud and a heretic,” LaBeaume said, characterizing the criticism Amash faced online. “Then, in the face of the twin 2020 perils of Donald Trump and the other party’s base pushing ‘Democratic’ socialism, Libertarian convention delegates nominated a ticket of Some Lady/Some Guy Who Podcasts from his Basement 2020.”
So the party that made a lot of noise with Johnson-Weld four years ago is now running an obscure party stalwart and a junior performance artist. It’s a pretty safe bet they are not going to win 4 million votes this time around, but they will definitely shake their reputation as a redoubt for washed-up Republican politicians.