Third Party Contenders: The Aleppo Fallout

Gary Johnson still facing fallout from the Aleppo gaffe
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MSNBC

It certainly isn’t unheard of to vote for a third party candidate, but traditional logic is that such a vote is, at worst, a throwaway and, at best, a protest. In fairness, there is a certain level of logic being applied when presenting this viewpoint. What is perhaps most notable in this particular Presidential election, though, is that the candidates generated by the nomination mechanisms of both major parties seem particularly unwelcome. True - as with any political groundswell movement, both candidates Trump and Clinton are pulling sufficient numbers and donations to keep the lumbering behemoths of their campaigns in perpetual motion. Ultimately, though, attention must be drawn to the national mistrust and uncertainty that can be, for vastly different reasons, applied to both candidates. It has been argued that in this election Gary Johnson and Jill Stein represent a unique form of hope for a breakaway from what has become the norm: two parties, few changes. Not imagining a win, but more open and engaged discussions and debates, at least. …and then Johnson’s less than stellar performance on MSNBC last week may just have dashed some of those hopes.

Let’s start with a glimpse at the blue side of the ticket: Hillary. While it must be credited that Hillary’s experience regarding the ins and outs of government is among the most extensive available in recent candidates for the Presidency, that doesn’t sell as a purely positive sign. Indeed, Clinton’s time in government is a factor viewed, by some, as both a blessing and a burden. She’s seen as an insider with intimate knowledge of political and governmental proceedings, but also seen as being corrupted by the practices of that very system. While her political opponents carry grave concerns about her service as Secretary of State (Benghazi coming most immediately to mind), many of her liberal colleagues have long worried if Clinton might be a bit too hawkish in her views for those with pacifist leanings on the Left. Given Clinton’s support for Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and further military actions – the case isn’t without fair merits. And both sides would be remiss to carry no concerns about her e-mail usage and revelations from the DNC hack. With regards to her missteps with email: the lack of digital security and defense-minded practices from someone only a few heartbeats from the Presidency is something that no amount of PR spin can correct for. In summation? Hillary is most definitely qualified, but for many liberals and conservatives there is a shared mistrust of her methodology and practices.

And what of the red side of the ticket: Donald Trump? Late-Night Comedy/News shows never seemed to know how to treat Trump when he first made official overtures at the Republican nomination. In theory, it was the perfect combination of news meeting comedy that their shows should be made to accommodate, but as Trump increasingly narrowed the field and, ultimately, secured the Republican nomination – that humor seemed more hollow and misguided with hindsight. I’ve heard support for Trump credited to many, varying things: a desire to support candid honesty in politics, a push back against the perceived injustices and immorality attached to illegal immigration, & measured support of business acumen entering the political arena. The trouble comes when one pushes in on those individual credits, though. For example, Trump’s record for political consistency is lacking in the extreme - leaving value of his candid honesty in question. Regardless of the strength and potency with which Trump speaks of his proposed wall, when meeting with Mexican leadership and then returning to US soil that message seemed quite muddled. Even among top campaign staff Trump’s plans for immigration appear undeveloped and amorphous. And as for business acumen – multiple bankruptcies filings make his knowledge of business the sort that doesn’t speak well of a man.

Here’s where things have taken a particularly interesting turn in the 2016 Presidential cycle: while the populace isn’t enormously or enthusiastically engaged in the political process in general, they do feel engaged by this sense that the two major party candidates are much like the parties themselves: inevitable, inescapable, and mistrusted. The metaphor is a bit too perfect of a fit, and it’s a moment like that which opens the door perfectly for third party candidates with a potent message. In this political vacuum we’ve seen two third party candidates step forward to prominence: Gary Johnson & Jill Stein. Johnson has gubernatorial experience and a strong pull with those in military service, and is running as a Libertarian. Stein has positioned herself as a Green activist-in-action as she runs, compensating for weak initial polling numbers with a powerful message. Multiple voices, among them even Republican Mitt Romney and former Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, have begun pushing for a third party presence in the Presidential Debates.

And then we cut to last Thursday morning when Gary Johnson froze in the face of a question about Syria’s city of Aleppo. Suddenly, Johnson’s stronger momentum and pull as the third party poster boy is stalled and in danger. Aleppo represents, for many, the danger of American inaction and the suffering of the Syrian people. Johnson not immediately recognizing the reference proves, for many, that he is ill-prepared for the international stage. Johnson’s campaign is already engaging in damage control, insisting Trump & Clinton are guilty of embarrassing mistakes in interviews themselves. That point is well taken (and admittedly quite accurate), but Johnson’s desire to reduce military spending and draw back international presences means his knowledge of international affairs needs to be particularly on point to compensate. Johnson failing in that regard isn’t just a mistake – it’s a mistake in an area he should be most prepped and studied on. It weakens his credibility in an area he can ill-afford to lose image in.

The real takeaway here should be that Johnson’s campaign may just not be as ready for the spotlight as they (and their supporters) would prefer. The more accurate takeaway, though, is more likely that as with all political nomination machines – mistakes will happen. The measure of action should be how well Johnson is able to recover and push forward, not if this gaffe costs him in the short term. Perhaps a better question would be if Stein is going to be able to capitalize on the opportunity this may present for her campaign. Given Stein’s presence and the protest-related charges she is facing in North Dakota involving the notorious & divisive pipeline – she may just be perfectly positioned to do just that. Regardless of affiliation or sense of purpose in this particular cause, Stein’s presence in person has earned particular attention and respect.

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