When 63 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and the favorability ratings of the two dominant presidential candidates are historically low, it’s no wonder voters are looking for a third-party alternative. But the two candidates who might have answered the question -- Is this the best America can do? – have just proved that they’re not going to save the republic after all.
First came the report that Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential nominee, is facing misdemeanor charges of vandalism and trespassing at a North Dakota construction site. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday issued arrest warrants for Stein and her running mate, Ajamu Baraka after the pair was caught on camera spray-painting construction equipment during a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Green, a physician and outspoken liberal activist who contends that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s blatant mishandling of State Department email and classified documents “raises real questions about her competency,” spray-painted "I approve this message" and "We need decolonization" on construction equipment.” Hardly the act of a serious presidential candidate.
Far more of a setback was Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s disastrous performance Thursday morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe when the former New Mexico governor couldn’t answer a simple question.
Asked what he would do as president to address the refugee crisis in the major war-torn Syrian city, Johnson replied: “What is Aleppo?”
Johnson, who is fighting to be included with Trump and Clinton in the three nationally televised presidential debates this fall, displayed an alarming ignorance of foreign policy and couldn’t identify Aleppo, the embattled Syrian city, and center of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
After an incredulous Mike Barnicle, an MSNBC commentator responded that Johnson must be kidding and that Aleppo was at the center of Syria’s civil war refugee crisis, Johnson struggled to recover from the humiliating gaffe – one that he later blamed on his brain freezing up.
“O.K., got it,” he said, explaining that he thinks that the United States must join forces with Russia to diplomatically improve the situation there – something the Obama administration has been trying to do for months with little success. “With regard to Syria, I do think that it’s a mess,” he said.
However, before Johnson could extricate himself from the interview, co-host Joe Scarborough harshly lectured him: "You asked, 'What is Aleppo?' Do you really think that foreign policy is so insignificant that somebody running for president of the United States shouldn't even know what Aleppo is, where Aleppo is, why Aleppo is so important?"
Johnson’s comments immediately went viral on social media, with many of his critics saying he had disqualified himself from being president. Some even questioned whether the libertarian leader who had championed the legalization of marijuana and once marketed recreational marijuana products might have been smoking weed before he went on the show.
The timing of the debacle couldn’t have been worse for Johnson, whose libertarian views on limited government, reducing the national debt and minimizing U.S. military intervention overseas have begun to catch on and helped him move up in the polls. Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, are both fiscal conservatives and social liberals whose views on defense and foreign policy sometimes border on isolationism.
Still, many disenchanted Republicans, Democrats and independents see Johnson as a refreshing alternative to either Trump or Clinton. A handful of prominent Republicans who oppose Trump has talked up the Johnson-Weld ticket. On Wednesday night, former governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, called for Johnson and Weld to be included in the presidential and vice presidential debates.
A new 50-state Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll released this week shows that both Johnson and Stein are positioned “to garner significant support across the country.” Johnson had an average of 13 percent support across all states, ranging from a low of four percent in Mississippi to a high of 25 percent in New Mexico, where he served two terms as governor. By contrast, Stein is receiving far less support than Johnson, with an average of five percent across all 50 states.
To be included in the presidential debates, that begin on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in New York, a candidate must be polling 15 percent or better in five mainstream news polls. Currently, Johnson averages 10 percent in the five most recent national polls by NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC and Fox News.
It’s not likely that Johnson’s embarrassing gaffe will alienate many of the anti-Trump, anti-Clinton voters who have already rallied to his side. Many of them probably would have been stumped by the same question about Aleppo if they had been put on the spot. Moreover, it might have been interesting to hear what Trump –who is extraordinarily vague on foreign policy issues -- would have had to say if NBC’s Matt Lauer had asked him the same question during Wednesday’s night’s commander in chief forum.
The bigger problem for Johnson will be how the news media more generally will treat him going forward. In his drive to push up his polling numbers to get included in the nationally televised presidential debates this fall, the former two-term governor needs to get far more exposure on television in short order. Until recently, he and Weld have been able to gain entre to high-profile Sunday talk shows, and many of the more popular cable TV news shows.
But his blatant ignorance over the outcome of the civil war in Syria makes it much harder to be considered a serious contender, booked on top news broadcasts, and someone deserving of standing next to Clinton and Trump on the debate stage.
“When I heard about it, I just saw him disappearing from the debate stage,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “You have to be taken seriously, and no candidate for president who scratches his head when you mention Aleppo and the humanitarian crisis that is occurring there should be taken seriously.”
“If your main concern is getting marijuana legalized, I’m not surprised he didn’t know what Aleppo is,” he added. “I think his kind of libertarian impulse just pulls him in very quixotic directions.”
Not everyone agrees with Baker, and some of Johnson’s boosters think the Morning Joe episode will quickly fade. Mitch Daniels, the former Republican Indiana governor and member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, wants Johnson to be included in the debates to give turned-off voters more of a choice.
Asked during an interview today on MSNBC on whether Johnson should be disqualified from being president because of his response to the question about Aleppo, Daniels replied: “If we were going to disqualify candidates for one comment they’d like to have back,” there would be no one left.