Report on the 1996 Presidential Election Campaign, part 2

Appraisal of the 1996's Campaign Objectives & Strategy

Given our very limited resources, I do not - in retrospect - see anything wrong with our objectives or strategy.

It may be that we could have refined our objectives further, to make them more clear-cut, and thus easier for people to rally to. Or we may, upon reflection, have found better ways to achieve our objectives. But we must remember that every decision was made in the heat of battle by people who were grossly overworked. There simply wasn't much time for relaxed contemplation of various courses of action.

In other words, we mustn't forget that alternative choices that seem obvious now may not have been so obvious when someone had to come up with an answer to a critical question in five minutes. Also, it's easy to imagine people carrying out some imaginative scheme - when in the real life of a campaign there usually isn't anyone available but yourself to act upon whatever you think should be done.

Even when a plan involves some resources - volunteers or money - that apparently were available, they may not have been available for the plan being suggested now. People may not have been willing to volunteer for the plan being suggested, only for the plan that was implemented. And people may not have contributed to the plan contemplated now, only to the one that seemed compelling to them at the time.5

When judging the decisions made, we must never forget that the people who made them were working 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. There was never enough money, never enough people, never enough time to leisurely consider all the possibilities. In a sense, everyone was working continually in urgent circumstances - rushing to make decisions and implement them with no time to spare. Given the situation, I'm amazed that so many choices proved to be very wise.

Although the urgency became greater as we got closer to election day, we couldn't necessarily make the best choices even in the more leisurely early days of the 2-year campaign. Even then:

To make the best choices, a campaign must have sufficient money and personnel to allow its managers to plan a long-term strategy at the outset without time pressures.

In summary, I believe the campaign basically made the right overall choices, given the alternatives available.

The Messages Used in the 1996 Campaign

I have been criticized both for having a message that was "vacuous" and for having a message that was too radical.

The message was based on what I believe is necessary to restore American freedoms. To be taken seriously - especially as a third-party candidate, I had to have specific proposals available, not just broad assertions. In Why Government Doesn't Work, I laid out a program to get from where we are now to much smaller government - specifically, to a federal government removed from everything not authorized in the Constitution.6

I mentioned often in speeches and radio appearances that we can't expect to reduce the government one program at a time, or reduce it over a period of years. The Republican Congress demonstrated that this doesn't work. There are three reasons such an approach is doomed:

  1. No matter what programs are proposed to be cut first, most everyone will assume that the government will continue to get bigger and taxes will still be oppressive. So those directly affected by the first program to go will fight the change, because they will be net losers. And no one else has an incentive to actively support the budget-cutters, because they can't see that the cuts will change their own lives in any significant way.


  2. Any attempt to cut one program first, and then another, will break down in a free-for-all argument over which program should go first.


  3. There is little reason to have confidence that Congress will keep its word and continue to reduce the government after the first showy reductions.
Thus any meaningful reduction in the federal government must come all at once and must provide an immediate benefit to most Americans.

For this reason, I coined the Great Offer: "Would you give up your favorite federal programs if it meant you never had to pay income tax again?" This transformed the abstract, long-term benefits of freedom into an immediate reason to reduce government dramatically. It also provided a reassurance that I wasn't offering a pie-in-the-sky free lunch - that there was an apparent cost connected to the benefit.

The 1996 campaign probably contained the most radical - and most specific - proposals of any Presidential campaign. There were three reasons I felt it was necessary to have such a radical message:

Early on, I settled on three basic campaign proposals:
  1. Reduce the federal government to the limits provided in the Constitution and use the savings to repeal the federal income tax, so that every dollar you make is yours to spend, to save, to give away as you see fit - not as the politicians think best.


  2. Take Social Security completely out of the hands of the government, so that your parents and grandparents will have guaranteed contracts with private companies, rather than political promises, and the rest of us will be free forever from the 15% Social Security tax that we know is wasted money.


  3. Do something positive about crime by ending the insane War on Drugs, shutting down the black market run by criminals - which is the cause of muggers on the streets trying to support a $100-a-day habit, pushers on high school grounds trying to hook kids on drugs, gangs fighting over drug profits and monopoly territories, and children killed in drive-by shootings.
These proposals all offer immediate benefits to the voter. I'm satisfied that they were the right issues to emphasize. The idea of ending the War on Drugs is still a few years ahead of its time - but since this issue was likely to be raised in nearly every interview, I felt I should raise it and be on the offensive.

The idea that there's a conflict between principle and politics has never made sense to me. I feel that, if your principles are hard to sell, you need to improve your selling ability - not tinker with your principles.

However, you can't sell someone who isn't listening. So you have to start by meeting him where he is now. There is nothing unprincipled about showing the listener how he will benefit immediately and significantly from application of our principles. And to do so, you have to talk in terms of issues that are important to him - not to you.

I made no attempt to campaign on behalf of rights. A voter may agree that the Branch Davidians or the Weavers were tragically mistreated, but it's doubtful that anyone will change his political philosophy or his vote because of such incidents. The average voter isn't concerned with "rights" until he is affected by the loss of a right - and, even then, his outrage may apply only to his own situation or, at most, to a general concern about that one right and no other.

I tried to confine discussions to federal issues, since I was running for President. If someone asked what I thought about state laws against drugs, I said the federal government shouldn't interfere - but that any state that maintains drug laws will attract the criminal element from states that repeal all such laws. If asked about public schools, I said that this should be decided in each locality, but that repealing the income tax would give parents the resources to free their children from dependence on government schools and do more to improve American education than any other single step.

Many libertarian organizations exist to elevate an individual's understanding of freedom and the libertarian philosophy. A political party exists to capture votes, win elections, and implement its program. In a political campaign, any educational benefits that accrue must be a byproduct of the attempt to win votes. Thus I made no attempt to provide a philosophical education.

However, the very act of justifying any of my positions tended toward education. I continually made such points as:

Understand that every interview inevitably delved into many issues - the environment, regulation, and so on. But I tried to keep coming back to the issues in which we could offer clear-cut, easy-to-understand, direct, unquestioned benefits to the voters.

Successes of the Message & the Messenger

I am not an unbiased observer, but I feel satisfied that the message was, in general well received. However, my only means of discerning the reception were the reactions of audiences at non-partisan events and the words of the hosts and callers on radio shows.

I didn't give many speeches to non-partisan groups, and the lack of practice meant that it was late in the campaign before I found the approach I thought best for a general audience. This was a speech built around the Great Offer - and the point that, since we all want smaller government, we should quit letting the politicians get by with promises of slower growth rates and instead start demanding what we want. At that point, the reception changed from respectful to enthusiastic.

Radio hosts, in general, responded very positively throughout the campaign. They considered me a good guest - because I had provocative ideas and could handle any objections. Many radio personalities - including popular hosts Michael Reagan, Art Bell, Oliver North, Mary Matalin, and other non-libertarians - were enthusiastic about my ideas and my attraction as a guest. Many of them talked about me or read our press releases on the air when I wasn't there. What we can't know yet is how much of this will stick after the election. We don't yet whether they will continue to treat us with such respect, given the vote total we received.

Over and over, I heard callers say they were now going to vote Libertarian. I asked if they had ever done so before, and almost all said that they hadn't.

As evidence that there's no conflict between principle and politics, here is a typical letter I received:

"This past summer I heard you on the Mary Matalin show and became excited. I have always been fiscally conservative in a political sense. Here was a candidate speaking directly to most of my views. I was impressed by how you took a stance on issue after issue, and then defended it in the face of incredulous opposition. You weren't evading. You weren't lying. You were running on your convictions and didn't compromise them in order to appeal to some special-interest faction in America."9
I believe the fact that Pamela was with me improved the reception of the message in many cases. She made a good impression at speeches, and also in radio & TV studios. Having my wife with me helped improve the image of the LP as a party of respectable people, and thus made it easier for people to listen to the message.

Weaknesses of the Message & the Messenger

We don't do interviews to show that we have answers to every question; we do them to persuade people of the importance of voting Libertarian. And, too often, I allowed myself to be satisfied with just answering the questions put to me - instead of using them as springboards to the points I wanted to make. While I could handle any issue that arose in an interview, I was not disciplined enough to continually bring the conversation back to the issues that mattered.

Although I believe I had a plausible position on every issue raised, there were issues where quicker, more persuasive answers are needed. Among these are:

We have many friends in the print media - columnists like Doug Bandow and Joe Sobran, and publications like Reason Magazine. These people provided very little help, if any. It's possible that a better presentation of our message would have inspired them to do more on our behalf.

Continued in Section Three

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5A good example is the oft-repeated suggestion that the LP should concentrate all its resources on a single Congressional race somewhere. Like many ideas, this may seem plausible at first glance. But when the time comes to choose the one race, many of those who had supported the idea may have assumed the chosen race would be closer to home and might become less enthusiastic about supporting a race far away. And there may be many potential donors who don't like the strategy at all. So the resources that are assumed to be available (such as the roughly $3 million that went into the 1996 Presidential campaign) won't be available unless the strategy is compelling to the donors. (back)

6As I have said often, those who believe we should go further than that are welcome to continue working to reduce the government from there. But I can't imagine that any libertarian wouldn't be happy to trade today's federal government for one only 1/16 as large, no matter how much he may want to continue beyond that. However, those who criticized my message as too moderate never suggested any alternatives, so I don't really know what they wanted. (back)

7My early proposal to replace the 15-39% income tax with a 5% sales tax wasn't an attempt at moderation. At that stage, I hadn't worked out the numbers to be confident that the federal debt could be reduced sufficiently to reduce federal interest expense enough that the budget could be balanced without a smaller replacement tax. Once the numbers worked out, however, I abandoned the sales tax. (back)

8The Republicans were the only party with which we might be confused because, whatever we might have remotely in common with the Democrats, they will not propose anything similar to what we suggest. Despite their professed belief in civil liberties, liberals don't propose to expand them the way we do - end the Drug War, stop censorship, stop warrentless searches, and so on - much less actually introduce bills in Congress to improve things. (back)

9An unsigned e-mail message from (back)

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