Is Gary Johnson too awkward to be president?


SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Here it comes — a column about image in presidential politics

I've spent the last four months taking shots at my Iowa journalism colleagues for their apparent aversion to taking about real issues in their caucus coverage. My position has been that the state press ought to focus all of its political-reporting resources on candidates' positions, rather than spending time and space reporting on campaign minutia and reality-show-type entertainment.

But former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson's performance in last week's Fox News/Google debate in Florida makes clear that candidate image — the way she or he speaks and presents herself or himself — matters.

Johnson is a two-term governor and an undefeated politician who posts polling numbers similar to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman or one-time U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Still, the libertarian Republican has struggled to become accepted by nationally televised media.

A libertarian-leaning (OK — it's more like I'm falling over) politico myself, I liked what Johnson offered to the debate. He was the only candidate on stage promising to balance the budget his first year in office, called for loosening restrictions on Cuba, and endorsed curbing U.S. military involvement abroad.
But Johnson delivered his message so awkwardly that I fear nobody listened.

That's not to say Johnson's debate appearance was unproductive. He boosted his profile, attracting much traffic to his website and many new donors. Still, The Iowa Republican — a blog that pretty reliably reflects caucus-goer sentiment — said after the debate that Johnson "frankly, does not belong on the stage."

If they gave him a chance, I think a lot of mainstream Republicans would like Johnson's calls to radically cut the size of the federal government. Likewise, general-election voters — independents and moderates, in particular — would likely be warm to Johnson's plan to end the drug war and wars in the Middle East.

But when the messages is wrapped around a wobbly, stuttering 50-something, it's hard to hear.

That's nothing new, of course. Spreading one's sentiment through a sleek presentation is something politicians and their consultants have been focused on for decades. But in Johnson's case, this isn't just a question of political reality.

The American presidency isn't just about ideas. It's about leadership. The president is the head coach of the federal government. Like any manager or administrator in the private sector (which Johnson prides himself on having been), the presidency requires the ability to relate and connect with people, whether they're Cabinet members, lawmakers, or regular Joe's.

Having managed around a hundred employees at a daily newspaper for the last four months, I can tell you firsthand that good ideas are irrelevant if a manager doesn't have the personability to convey his ideas effectively to his subordinates.

One might suggest that Johnson's candidacy, however, isn't about actually being the president; it's about promoting the libertarian platform and spread of free-market ideas. That's a fair point but it also gives ammo to the mainstream Republicans who think Johnson and the other media-snubbed candidates don't belong on nationally televised debates.

There's an inclination among radicals to resist playing mainstream politics at all costs. It's an admirable goal because mainstream politics are disgusting and stupid.

Unfortunately, though, playing that game is probably still the best way to effect change in the United States.

In today's issue:

comments powered by Disqus

Privacy Policy (8/15/07) | Terms of Use (4/28/08) | Content Submission Agreement (8/23/07) | Copyright Compliance Policy (8/25/07) | RSS Terms of Use

Copyright © The Daily Iowan, All Rights Reserved.