Libertarian candidate draws untimely blank
Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson has doggedly sought the spotlight in his long-shot presidential bid, but on Thursday he got an unwelcome jolt of notoriety when he blanked on the name of Aleppo, the city at the heart of the protracted war in Syria.
The gaffe, which was i nstantly and widely mocked, threatened to taint Johnson’s reputation among most voters and undermine his effort to establish himself as a viable option to the two major parties’ historically unpopular nominees.
“The question is, does this become the one thing that people know about him?” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
The episode also exposed the limitations of Johnson’s quirky persona as he tries to woo voters from Donald Trump, the GOP nominee, or Democratic contender Hillary Clinton. And it came at a particularly crucial time as Johnson seeks a spot in the three presidential debates.
The former Republican governor of New Mexico was asked on MSNBCwhat, as president, he would do about Aleppo, which has borne some of the brunt of Syria’s five-year-old civil war.
“What is Aleppo?” Johnson asked, prompting his interviewer to ask if he was kidding.
When told of the city’s significance in the Syrian conflict, he tried again to answer the question, advocating for the U.S. to work with Russia to find a diplomatic solution. He also made a broader point against foreign entanglements, reflecting the non- Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson says he “blanked” Thursday when asked about the Syrian city of Aleppo. interventionist philosophy that is a key tenet of libertarianism.
“I do understand Aleppo,” he said. “And I understand the crisis that is going on. But when we involve ourselves militarily, when we involve ourselves in these humanitarian issues, we end up with a situation that in most cases is not better and in many cases ends up being worse.”
Later, in a statement, Johnson said the blunder resolved “any doubt that I’m human.”
“Yes, I understand the dynamics of the Syrian conflict — I talk about them every day,” Johnson continued. “But hit with ‘What about Aleppo?’ I immediately was thinking about an acronym, not the Syrian conflict. I blanked. It happens, and it will happen again during the course of this campaign.”
Supporters found an upside: a surge in attention for the candidate. “This can only help Johnson in the long run with dramatically increased name recognition, which is what he has needed,” said Kerry Welsh, an entrepreneur who has hosted fundraisers for Johnson.
But Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said he doubted the episode had a silver lining.
“If he had made a controversial comment that offended some people but motivated others, then that’s the type of story that can help in the polls,” Schnur said “This isn’t a point of controversy. It simply displays an extraordinary lack of knowledge on his part. It might not cost him a lot of votes, but it’s impossible to imagine it will gain him any.”
The Libertarian ticket has consistently averaged around 9 percent in polls — short of the 15 percent threshold for participating in the televised presidential debates this fall.
Johnson’s upstart candidacy had garnered some promising signs of support in recent days. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the capital city newspaper of the key swing state of Virginia, has endorsed Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Bill Weld.