Despite the looming prospect that history will repeat itself and Americans Elect, the somewhat shadowy, hedge fund-financed entity with a yet-to-be-named candidate — a “mysterious millionaires’ machination,” as one left-wing skeptic recently put it — could potentially emerge as a viable alternative in the 2012 presidential election, Libertarian activists arriving in Las Vegas for the party’s national convention remain cautiously optimistic that this could be a watershed moment for their freedom-oriented party.
Buoyed by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s 7 percent showing nationally in a recent Public Policy Polling survey, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism. The heavily-favored Johnson, that rare politician who generally avoids the use of aphorisms or simplistic slogans in making his point, is expected to easily dispense of antiwar candidate R. Lee Wrights — a longtime libertarian writer and champion of the party’s increasingly outnumbered purists — on the convention’s first ballot.
Perhaps more than any of the party’s previous presidential nominees, the former two-term governor appears amply prepared to lead his party out of the political wilderness and into a future where libertarianism — the idea of limited government and maximum individual freedom — is as widely discussed and debated in political circles as any run-of-the-mill conservative or progressive viewpoint.
In Johnson’s world, the cable news networks would have to make room for a third analyst.
But Libertarians might be well advised to keep their enthusiasm in check. The party has seemingly been down this road before.
The party’s watershed could turn out to be another wasteland.
Just when it appeared that the party of liberty might be on the verge of a profound electoral breakthrough in presidential politics, something quite unexpected happened — not once, but twice — each time relegating the party to a kind of perpetual status as an also-ran in our nation’s quadrennial presidential sweepstakes.
In fact, both times it happened were in years of widespread voter discontent, not unlike the mood sweeping the country today when most Americans have little or no patience for the status quo.
The most recent example famously occurred some twenty years ago.
That year, little-known Andre Marrou, the party’s presidential nominee — a rebel with a cause who was arguably smarter and possessed a better sense of humor than either of his major-party competitors — could do little to counter Ross Perot’s gargantuan campaign war chest, which included $65.6 million of the Dallas business executive’s own money.
Largely shunned by the media, Marrou — a former Las Vegas real estate broker-turned-politician who won a seat in the Alaska legislature as a Libertarian in 1984 — could do little but complain as the billionaire’s bandwagon stole his party’s thunder.
When he accepted the Libertarian Party’s nomination six months earlier at the party’s national convention in Chicago, Marrou, 53, couldn’t possibly have imagined that Perot, the fast-talking populist promising to slay the dragon of debt while riding a wave of public discontent, would eventually jump into the fray. Perot’s unexpected, last-minute candidacy changed everything.
There was simply no way that Marrou, who spent $14.5 million less than his wealthy rival in qualifying for a spot on the ballot in all fifty states — accomplishing that impressive feat with little fanfare two full weeks before the jug-eared Texan concluded his own ballot access drive — could compete with Perot’s on-again, off-again, high-octane candidacy.
Even after implicitly endorsing the Democratic ticket and inexplicably rejoining the race in early October when his badly-bruised ego apparently needed some soothing, Perot again soaked up almost all of the media coverage.
As had been the case before Perot abruptly quit the race in July, Marrou and his vice-presidential running mate Nancy Lord, a 39-year-old attorney and physician from Washington, D.C., were barely mentioned in the press during the final 33 days of the campaign encompassing Perot’s re-entry into the race. The media was fixated on the simple-minded character from Texas.
Perot, lamented the MIT-educated Libertarian, was a “bored billionaire who doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his life.” Most of Perot’s supporters, he added poignantly, had little or no idea what their candidate even stood for.
Lacking Perot’s resources and armed only with an arsenal of ideas, Marrou, who hoped to snare two or three percent of the vote — 10 percent if Perot wasn’t running — said that he had grown accustomed to “being ignored by the press.”
The bearded former state legislator, who once denounced Perot as a “fascist,” asserted that he would win if he had the Texas billionaire’s campaign war chest. “A hundred million dollars buys a lot of publicity, a lot of attention.”
He also said that he would be running neck-and-neck with Perot if he had been allowed to participate in the nationally-televised debates.
Consequently, Marrou was unable to get his message out — a message that included abolishing the IRS and eliminating the income tax. “We have the highest tax burden in history — 16 times as high as the tax burden that prompted the Boston Tea Party,” declared Marrou, adding that the Libertarian Party was the only party serious about reducing taxes and cutting the size of government.
“Our platform is light-years ahead of the Democrats and Republicans,” he continued. “It’s the most comprehensive, consistent platform in American politics and perhaps in American history, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.”
Unfortunately, like those of other third-party candidates that year, Marrou’s message was almost completely drowned out by the so-called “Perot phenomenon.” He garnered a disappointing 290,087 votes, a tiny fraction of what he might otherwise have received in a race without Perot.
A somewhat similar situation existed a dozen years earlier when Ed Clark, a corporate attorney from Los Angeles, confronted U.S. Rep. John B. Anderson’s media-driven independent candidacy in 1980.
Like Marrou, Clark had no idea that Anderson, commanding considerable media attention in the early primaries, would drop out of the Republican race and launch an independent bid for the White House on April 24, 1980.
Unlike Marrou, Clark was convinced that he could astonish the political world by finishing third in the 1980 campaign, ahead of the Illinois congressman and media darling who had remarkably surged to an astounding 26% in the polls by mid-June.
While conceding that Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter would emerge victorious that year, the 49-year-old Clark believed that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that he could outpoll the white-haired Anderson on November 4 while finishing third nationally.
A graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard Law School, Clark had garnered an eye-opening 377,960 votes, or 5.5 percent, as the Libertarian nominee for governor of California in 1978. He had political moxie and knew what it would take to finish ahead of a formidable rival like Anderson.
By offering a relatively high-profile alternative to Carter and Reagan, Clark believed that Anderson’s candidacy would not only help his own long-shot quest for the White House, but also those of the other minor-party candidates, including the Citizens Party’s Barry Commoner, the environmentalist and author who had courageously raised the tattered banner of the ever-shrinking Left at precisely the moment the country drifted rightward.
Described by the late David S. Broder of the Washington Post as “a man of charm and conviction,” Clark wasn’t afraid to take off the gloves.
In mid-August, the Libertarian aspirant called on the Illinois congressman to withdraw from the presidential contest.
Speaking at a press conference in Sacramento, Clark described the failed Republican presidential candidate as an unfit alternative to Reagan and Carter. “John Anderson said that he would withdraw from the race if it appeared he did not have a chance of winning,” said Clark. With Anderson’s support plummeting to below fifteen percent in recent polls, Clark told reporters that the Illinois lawmaker should follow through on his promise.
Arguing that Anderson was a man without a party and lacked a “concrete alternative program,” Clark ridiculed his opponent’s simplistic theme as, “I am not Jimmy Carter and I am not Ronald Reagan.”
According to Jim Mason, author of No Holding Back: The 1980 John B. Anderson Presidential Campaign (University Press of America, Sept. 2011), Anderson — having difficulty finding a suitable running mate and dropping like a rock in the polls — seriously considered withdrawing from the race during that period, but eventually decided to stay in until the bitter end.
Meanwhile, Clark, who was obviously disappointed, continued to make his case against Anderson.
“Anderson demonstrated the desire for alternatives, but he also has demonstrated that he’s not much of one,” scoffed Clark in early September. “We are.”
“I’m hopeful that by election day we’ll be perceived as the alternative party,” continued Clark. “I hope we will not only get a lot of positive votes — people voting for us because they like our program — but also get a lot of votes from people who want to vote against the system.”
In late October, Clark, who described himself as a “low-tax liberal” throughout the campaign, challenged Anderson to a debate to give the millions of Americans dissatisfied with both major parties a clear choice on November 4.
“Of the four candidates who will be on every state ballot, John Anderson and I are perceived as the two serious alternatives,” said the Libertarian candidate. “A Clark-Anderson debate would show those voters which of us represents the real alternative.”
Clark, who praised Anderson for demonstrating that a huge portion of the population was dissatisfied with both major-party candidates, had already lined up a large auditorium for the debate at the University of Southern California. He was also willing to pay to have the debate televised just prior to the Reagan-Carter debate scheduled for October 28.
Predictably, Anderson, whose own political fortunes had plummeted after failing to substantively engage Reagan during their nationally-televised debate in Baltimore on September 21 — a debate boycotted by President Carter — refused to mix it up with his pesky Libertarian rival.
Many of Clark’s supporters believed that their candidate should have been invited to the earlier debate, especially since President Carter had been a no-show and that the Reagan campaign had already indicated a willingness to participate in a three-way debate. Then again, sharing the stage with a Libertarian, particularly one as articulate and quick-witted as Ed Clark, probably would have been a show-stopper for the aging Republican.
Clark, incidentally, had filed a lawsuit to prevent any tax dollars from being used in providing a site for the Reagan-Anderson debate, but — as a matter of principle and in keeping with his party’s core philosophy — refused to sue the League of Women Voters from sponsoring the debate.
“As a private organization, supported with voluntary funds, the league has a right to make mistakes,” he quipped.
“St. John the Righteous,” as one critic called Anderson, probably would have been a better President than Ronald Reagan, but that wasn’t the point. Anderson’s candidacy retarded the efforts of others, including Clark and Commoner, to build lasting political alternatives to the dominant Democratic and Republican parties.
Unable to convince Anderson to abandon his independent candidacy, the Libertarian hopeful, who only a few months earlier believed he could poll as many as 2.5 to 3 million votes nationally, lowered his expectations considerably, saying on the eve of the election that he would consider “anything over one million votes” a success.
He came close, polling just shy of a million votes. But like Andre Marrou twelve years later, the 921,128 votes officially cast for him were probably only a small share of the total he might have received if Anderson, who finished third in every state except Alaska — where Clark surprisingly spanked him by more than 7,000 votes — hadn’t stubbornly remained in the race, leaving nothing to build upon in terms of a political party or movement.
History has a way of repeating itself. A party whose time has seemingly come could once again find itself on the outside looking in. The Libertarians should keep a close eye on Americans Elect, an organization largely financed by the Wall Street speculators and hedge-fund hyenas — the hapless hooligans responsible for the devastating financial meltdown that ravaged the country only a few short years ago — the same folks who shamelessly pleaded with Washington for a mind-boggling and unprecedented bailout for their reckless activity.
Some $29.6 trillion later — the largest transfer of wealth from the have-nots to the obscenely affluent in world history, much of which went to struggling foreign financial institutions — ordinary American taxpayers are looking for a party that will fight for them.
The benefactors of this government largesse here in the United States, by and large, are the same folks who have been attending President Obama’s $35,800-a-plate fundraising dinners and secretly funding Mitt Romney’s closely-guarded “American Future Fund,” a 501(c)(4), and “Restore our Future” Super PAC.
Excerpts from Darcy G. Richardson’s forthcoming book, “Out of the Desert: The Libertarian Party at 40,” available from Fitzgerald Press on July 4, 2012.