Some of you wanted a presidential alternative. Now what?
While Donald Trump was fat-shaming a former beauty pageant winner and tweeting people in the middle of the night to look at her reported sex tape, and while one of Hillary Clinton’s surrogates was saying she needs to keep working to inspire people to vote for her (as if inspiration comes from perspiration), Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, the major minor-party figures, have pretty much destroyed the pretense they were viable options.
Johnson’s free fall was more stunning: He polls much higher and is a former two-term governor of New Mexico. But when the Libertarian Party nominee was asked by MSNBC host Chris Matthews to name a foreign leader he looked up to, Johnson drew a blank.
Matthews tried to help: “Anywhere, any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe, over there, Asia, South America, Africa. Name a foreign leader that you respect.”
Johnson lamely replied, “I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment,” a reference to the nearly-as-stupefying moment a few weeks ago when he did not recognize the name of the devastated Syrian city at the heart of that country’s civil war.
Matthews persisted: “Any leader.”
Johnson finally responded, “The former president of Mexico.”
And when Matthews asked which former president, the hopeless Johnson replied, “I’m having a brain freeze.”
He says he gave up smoking weed to make this run. Maybe. Or maybe he’s lost a few brain cells.
Stein, the Green Party nominee, sensing a trolling moment, promptly tweeted out her three top world leaders — Elizabeth May of Canada, João Stedile of Brazil, and Jeremy Corbyn of Britain. Except that none of them heads their country’s government. Not even close. Oops.
This is the same Stein who panders to anti-vaxxers by saying she’s not sure all questions have been addressed, who would appoint National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to her cabinet, and who sees no difference between Democrats and Republicans on climate change.
Turns out the minor parties suffer from the same major-party affliction — candidatus dissatisfactus.
Americans like choices. This is the land of opportunity. We want big menus and hundreds of cable stations. That’s not always the case with our politics, where too many of us are hard-wired with a binary switch — Democrat or Republican. The nation has become too diverse and, yes, too fragmented for two strands of political thought and policy to represent all of us. And the two parties in charge have done a fine job of gumming up Washington.
But just when the third-party stars seemed to be aligning, along come Johnson and Stein. Complicating matters is the argument that a vote for somebody other than Clinton is a vote for Trump (and vice versa), a potent argument in a year of visceral disgust. Then there’s recent history: Democrats still blame the Green Party’s Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s loss in 2000.
In other words, this year a protest vote could end up costing dearly. Many who support Johnson and Stein now likely will worm their way back to Clinton or Trump on Nov. 8, if they don’t just stay home.
But the absence of good choices this time doesn’t mean we should stop seeking them. On the contrary, we should try even harder to create them. Alternate voices need to be identified and promoted through all four years of the election cycle; name recognition is important. Debate criteria need to be changed so there aren’t just two people on the big stage. And we must make campaigning cheaper. There is way too much money involved, and too little access to it.
You want choice? Work for it. Or your only alternative will be the same two-party rut we’ve been stuck in for far too long.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.