The presidential debate last night featured a lot of moments that would not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched previous debates. Newt Gingrich wagged his finger at the moderators, Rick Perry’s book was critiqued, Mitt Romney trotted out all 5 Ds of dodgeball in an attempt to avoid discussing Romneycare, and there was, of course, an awkward middle-aged white man moment, this time courtesy of Jon Huntsman, who at the end of the debate reached out tentatively to slap hands with Herman Cain. But there was one new wrinkle in the debate, it was the first time Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico, participated.
Johnson, despite being a relatively successful two term governor, has been given short shrift so far. As a libertarian, albeit a socially liberal one, he’s been dismissed by pundits. If Jon Huntsman is a reporter’s idealized version of Mitt Romney, Johnson has been brushed aside as an idealized Ron Paul. But despite opposition from the Florida Republican Party, which was one of the sponsors of the debate, this pro-choice, pro-pot, and anti-government candidate finally got a chance to participate.
Of the nine contenders on the stage, Johnson was clearly the least rehearsed. However, he was prepared for the limited screen time he got, showing strong message discipline in answering every question by first making clear he would balance the budget his first year in office and slash federal spending. He even got the biggest laugh line of the night by jesting, “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this president.”
Johnson’s presence was a refreshing change of pace. He is the only candidate who seems to capture the growing libertarian impulse among many people in the country (unlike Ron Paul, who is socially conservative and whose libertarian instincts seem to be by way of the John Birch Society). This is not to mention that, in a primary where candidates make much of business experience, he is probably the only candidate who both built a business from scratch and actually governed a state. (This is not to dismiss Romney’s experience, but a governor’s son with dual degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School starts with certain advantages that a middle class graduate of the University of New Mexico does not possess.)
Despite his occasionally awkward demeanor, Johnson came across well. His stumbles did not seem like those of an actor who forgot his lines, but a reasonable person trying both to think carefully and speak at the same time. After the debate, Johnson said he was grateful for his “four minutes” of airtime during the event, since it was four more than he had had previously. Johnson may not make the best president of the GOP contenders, and almost certainly isn’t the best candidate so far, but he deserves, and hopefully will get, a lot more attention in the coming months than the four minutes he received last night.