Presidential candidate Gary Johnson is not a good television personality. He’s awkward and uncomfortable. He contradicts himself. He’s often non-committal with his answers. While Wednesday’s CNN town hall was an improvement from the one in June, it was Johnson’s running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who delivered many of the best moments. Johnson’s performance, while passable and even stellar at times, was plagued with indecisive and ambiguous answers. However, this inability to speak fluent bumper sticker should not disqualify him. In fact, some of his weaknesses on television could translate into strengths in the Oval Office.
Being a presidential candidate and being the president are two fundamentally different jobs. Being good at one does not guarantee you’ll be good at the other. In fact, there are some traits that might be assets as a candidate that would be liabilities as a president. A president negotiates with people from different backgrounds, both foreign and domestic. A good candidate doesn’t meet in the middle with their opponents; they instead make a compelling case for why the opposition is unworthy of office. A good president prioritizes the needs of the people and isn’t responsive to special interests. A good candidate schmoozes donors constantly, as their very campaign depends on it. A good president is detail-oriented, understands that complex problems typically require nuanced solutions and makes policy decisions accordingly. A good candidate is able to sum up their positions in easily digestible sound bites.
One of Johnson’s biggest problems on television is his lack of commitment. While other candidates like to say “this is good” and “that is bad,” Johnson prefers phrases like “I’m open to discussion about that,” “it’s a complicated issue” and my new personal favorite, “Perhaps we’re really good at civil liberties.” All this makes it difficult for outsiders to learn what his positions actually are.
A prime example came on Wednesday when an audience member asked Johnson where he stood regarding religious liberty and LGBT discrimination. He asserted that there can be a balance between the two, but didn’t paint a clear picture of what that balance might look like. Since many voters have already picked a side in this conflict, many will have trouble relating to a candidate that doesn’t. “Us vs. Them” makes for good television. “There can be a balance between us and them” does not.
Something similar happened when Johnson was asked about marijuana policy. Rather than saying “yes marijuana should be legal” or “no it shouldn’t be,” he emphasized the importance of rescheduling marijuana so that it is easier for scientists to research the drug’s effects. To be fair, Johnson is correct about this. Bureaucratic roadblocks to proper research of marijuana certainly exist, and that’s a legitimate problem. However, one can hardly blame viewers for being unsatisfied with Johnson’s answer.
“I just think that so much research and development needs to take place that hasn’t taken place,” he said. Just because it’s true, it doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
While this lack of clarity is certainly problematic for a candidate, do we really want an actual president who has made up their mind on the campaign trail and then refuses to budge when presented with new information? I would rather have someone like Johnson, whose instinct is to listen to all sides of the story and not take a hard stance until he’s done his homework. He isn’t arrogant enough to believe that he has all the answers to all the questions. That’s part of what makes him so radically different from all the other politicians out there.
Even moderator Anderson Cooper made this observation. Cooper said, “At one point you said, ‘I may be wrong,’ which I haven’t heard a politician say that in a long time.”
Johnson’s willingness to admit mistakes led him to possibly his best moment of the evening, when a victim of last month’s Dallas shooting asked him about Black Lives Matter protester movement. Not only did Johnson show sympathy, he also admitted that he had been ignorant about such issues prior to this movement.
“What it has done for me is, is that my head’s been in the sand on this. That’s what it’s done for me. And that I think we’ve all had our head’s in the sand and let’s wake up. This discrimination does exist.”
Johnson might never be the insult comic or confident, silver tongued spokesman that we expect our politicians to be. I certainly hope Johnson can refine his skills and have better appearances between now and the election, but his open-mindedness and humility are not weaknesses. I know I would rather have a president who needs a few more media training lessons than one who needs a few more lessons in honesty, ethics, or basic human decency.