The Best Line of the Night
At the GOP debate, underdog candidate Gary Johnson finally gets a moment in the spotlight—and seizes it.
ORLANDO, Fla.—Gary Johnson was one of the very last people to get the news about Gary Johnson. On Tuesday night, Howard Kurtz reported that the former governor of New Mexico would get a podium at the Fox News/Google presidential debate. Other journalists tried to confirm the story with the Johnson campaign. No dice. They called the Florida GOP. Same deal. Not until Wednesday morning, when the governor was in a plane headed to Florida, could the campaign start popping bottles. He started strategizing on Wednesday night.
"Everybody that I've met in my life prior to today emailed me, I think," Johnson said. "Everybody had a suggestion for what I was supposed to do."
The mission: Get taken seriously for once. Johnson was supposed to be the Next Ron Paul of Republican politics. Ron Paul realized that he had gotten pretty good at that job. Johnson impressed nobody at a May debate in South Carolina. He had not debated a political foe since 1998, which led to word-salad answers like this one: "I'm in the camp that believes that we as individuals, we need a bit of help, so government helps out but at the point at which it runs out, that's when we really deal with the problems that we have and as individuals that's when we deal with those problems."
Candidates who poll around 1 percent are rewarded if they make debates more exciting. Johnson was punished. He missed the cut for every other debate, flunking the ad hoc tests of polling strength, becoming a nonperson. In his last finance report, he had around $6,000 to campaign with. The one Republican who backed legal marijuana, opposed the death penalty, and wanted to cut 43 percent from the military budget had become invisible.
Libertarians have more intellectual sway in the Republican Party right now than they've had in … well, give me a couple hours, and I'll think of another time. Johnson's vanishing act annoyed them. On Wednesday, before I got to Florida, a libertarian friend who owns a comic book store (no jokes!) asked me why Gary Johnson kept getting stiffed in the debates. For the first time, I could say that he wasn't being stiffed. Thursday, as Republican delegates and legislators and hangers-on kibitzed, I ran into FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe. "Gary Johnson's going to come out swinging," he predicted. Then I ran into State Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a mainline conservative Republican, and asked him if he was ready for Johnson. "What was his name?" said Haridopolos. "God bless him for showing up."
Johnson took his place on stage before 9 p.m., ready to swing. When the cameras came to him (thank you, Fox News, for sparing us the action bios and forced introductory quips of the CNN debates), Johnson fed off the energy of an audience packed tight with Ron Paul lovers. He waved to the crowd with a look that said, "That's right. I made it. I have enough money left in my campaign account to buy a 30-second ad in the 2 a.m. block on this channel—maybe. But I made it."
Over two hours, Johnson would get four questions. This was better than he expected; when he previewed his non-strategy to me, he guessed he'd get "two and a half." Every question got the same answer, with a series of lines rearranged like parsley on a plate.
"I think I vetoed more bills than any governor in the country." (True.)
"I will submit a balanced budget for 2013." (We may never know.)
"I think the biggest threat to our national security is that we're bankrupt." (We're not, technically, but this a nice line to co-opt from the Tea Party.)
One hour and 44 minutes in, Johnson got his fourth question. It was obviously going to be his last—maybe his last question in this format ever. He deployed a zinger.
"My next door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel ready jobs than this president."
The candidate who had been kept out of polite society had just told a poop joke on the same stage as the next Republican presidential nominee. It killed. Johnson didn't even try to contain his screw-you grin. When the debate ended, his rivals told him he'd had the best line of the night. Him! The guy who had probably inspired late-night calculus sessions of debate promoters to find a formula that included struggling Jon Huntsman but excluded him.
Fox wrapped its live shot and went to instant commentary from Charles Krauthammer.
"That was the best line of the night," said Krauthammer, "and had he said it early on, he might now be a top tier candidate."
Johnson could walk into the spin room as a winner, kind of. Andrew Breitbart was already in there, doing more interviews than half of the candidates' strategists, praising the guy who had barely made it in.
"In my gut I'd vote for Johnson or Cain, because they made me laugh," said Breitbart. "That's the shallow, Hollywood perspective for you."
The governor sat for a TV interview, then confronted a first for the Johnson campaign: a crowd of reporters. The first bites came from foreign press, for whom any presidential candidate's quotes are precious.
"You want to balance the budget, you said," offered a Japanese reporter. "Do you risk becoming a single-issue candidate?"
This was the best problem Johnson had faced in months. The question implied that he was actually a candidate. He answered it. He got a question about momentum, and answered it: "What if I'm supposed to not even show up in New Hampshire, and I come in fifth?" He got a question about the death penalty.
"Innocent people have probably been put to death in Texas!" he said. "I changed my mind on this issue based on the evidence." He told the story of a wrongful conviction in New Mexico that spun him around, getting more and more emotive. He offered up more differences with the front-runners.
"I'm glad the military supported 'don't ask, don't tell,' " he said. "I'm not a social conservative. I don't want to build a fence on the border."
It was all friendly—who wants to grind a 1 percent candidate down with details?—until a hawkish reporter from a foreign policy pressure group pointed a bulky HD camera at Johnson.
"Sir, the federal government has listed CAIR as a Muslim Brotherhood front group."
"You know," said Johnson, "this is the first I've heard of it. I probably should have heard of it."
"Are you familiar with CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations?"
"No, I'm not."
Johnson looks perplexed: Why is he being asked this? His interrogator, unsure just how to quiz someone who doesn't know about this, sweats and sputters.
"Uh, OK. Have you heard of the Holy Land Foundation trial, sir?
"No, I have not. I've been to Israel. I've met with Netanyahu. I feel like I have a sense of what's happening there."
The interrogator, sort of desperate, started raising his vocal pitch at the end of his questions. "The Holy Land Foundation trial is the largest anti-terrorism trial in the United States? They designated 254 groups as unindicted co-conspirators, and are tied to the Muslim Brotherhood?"
Johnson shrugged. "Based on what you're saying, this is a bad situation."
"We'd be happy to send you some information," said the interrogator, giving up.
"Good! That'd be great."
A Fox News radio reporter tried to bring the conversation back, to humanize Johnson. How did it feel to be excluded from the rest of these cattle calls?
"Do you take it personally?" the reporter asked. "Does it hurt you?"
Johnson leaned toward the microphone, left leg forward, as if he were winding up for a pitch.
"If you were in my shoes, you would be hurt," he said. "You would ask, what's going on? Is this the American system? Is this fair? Is this the media? I mean, really?"
Johnson's happy campaign team started applauding.
"I'm in this race because I think I can win. Now, that might sound terribly outrageous."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Gary Johnson by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.