This morning, Gary Johnson went on Morning Joe and was asked what he would do about Aleppo, a major Syrian city with a population of over 2 million and the epicenter of the Syrian civil war. His response—”What is Aleppo?”— was a major gaffe that will likely haunt his campaign until Election Day. Not only did this ignorant response make him look clueless with regard to one of the world’s nastiest conflicts, but it virtually guarantees Johnson won’t hit the 15 percent threshold required to join Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the debate stage in less than three weeks. It also potentially puts in jeopardy his chances of even hitting the 5 percent threshold to acquire guaranteed federal funds for the Libertarian Party nominee in 2020.
I’ll be the first to tell you that all presidential candidates should have a working knowledge of the major crises and conflicts affecting states around the world today, especially the one in Syria. Despite my previous statements of support for Johnson, I’m extremely frustrated with him. This was an inexcusable blunder that has confirmed my fear that he lacks foreign policy expertise and doesn’t understand the plight of the Syrian people, regardless of whether or not his assertion that he “blanked” and thought Mike Barnicle was referring to an acronym is true. Because he has no experience in the field—after all, he was a governor that exclusively focused on domestic policy issues, not a State Department bureaucrat—a slip-up was bound to happen inevitably; it was only a matter of time.
The media response to this whole conundrum has been ample, to say the least. Conservative pundits that traditionally ignore Johnson, like Sean Hannity and Herman Cain, were quick to weigh in, reveling in the “embarrassing” self-destruction of one of the cynosures of the #NeverTrump movement. Liberals that want a media blackout of Johnson to prevent him from “stealing” votes from Clinton have used this incident as fuel for their argument that we have a moral imperative to vote for the Democratic nominee. Even generally moderate and non-partisan outlets that rarely, if ever, mention Johnson, like The Atlantic and Foreign Policy, have jumped on the bandwagon to criticize him.
Johnson rightfully deserves criticism for what he said this morning, even if it was an honest slip-up. My issue with the whole situation, however, lies in the media’s behavior vis-à-vis the former governor of New Mexico. Up to this point, Johnson has run a generally positive, largely mistake-free campaign and, as a result, has gone relatively unnoticed by the mainstream media. Many traditional outlets ignore Johnson’s campaign because he doesn’t do much to attract negative attention. While Trump gets billions of dollars in free media coverage because of his incendiary remarks and Clinton always has some scandal floating around in the news, Johnson doesn’t get real exposure because he hasn’t really been at the center of controversy. He’s had to rely on the occasional appearance in both late-night town halls on CNN or morning talk shows on MSNBC to get his message heard by a significant audience.
When the only thing major news outlets say about a candidate is that he knows nothing about the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria and therefore would be a terrible foreign policy president—which is both an exaggeration and an unfair characterization of what happened—it’s impossible for that candidate to have a legitimate shot at winning the election. Of course, much of this is inevitable and not unique to Johnson; third party “spoilers” and outsiders that threaten the sanctity of the two-party duopoly are always at a disadvantage and rarely attract much attention from traditional media outlets without an unprecedented level of support, broad name recognition, or a persona in the style of Trump or Ross Perot. Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Jill Stein have all had to deal with this during their respective campaigns. The counter-argument here is also somewhat persuasive. As Johnson’s poll numbers have increased, he’s secured more spots on television and gained traction with the media. Many would argue Johnson was given a legitimate opportunity to shine this morning and squandered it. I don’t disagree; he absolutely failed to capitalize on the situation.
But in an election where both major party candidates have unprecedentedly low favorability ratings and so many people are searching for a viable alternative, the media has failed to give one of those truly viable alternatives on the ballot in all fifty states an adequate platform on which to campaign. If anything, they’ve done all they can to undermine him; on top of not allowing him to debate, they outright ignored him until his support hit a fever pitch, and ever since they’ve attempted to mollify his supporters by offering only measly morsels of media coverage. As soon as he slipped up, they struck him down with as much force as possible.
People also need to recognize that presidential candidates are human and make mistakes. Obviously Johnson isn’t perfect, and no one has insinuated that he is, but to hold Trump and Clinton in higher regard is asinine. Just as Trump has had dozens of arguably worse gaffes and Clinton has always been engulfed in scandal, Johnson royally screwed up by forgetting Aleppo. But if the media can look past both Trump’s and Clinton’s flaws as certain outlets have, they shouldn’t be so harsh on Johnson.
At the end of the day, I still believe Johnson will cross the 5 percent threshold. He’s at or above 15 percent in fifteen states, and at or above 10 percent in 42 states; I don’t see that changing much between now and November unless he has another serious gaffe. But today was a rough day for the Libertarian nominee. I sincerely hope he can recover and still have a decent showing on Election Day.