Thursday 8 September 2016 8:15 pm

"What is Aleppo?" Gary Johnson's Syria gaffe was bad but also emphasised his integrity

Kate Andrews is associate director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The presidential campaign of Gary Johnson, candidate for the US Libertarian party, received one of its biggest boosts in this election cycle on Wednesday evening – a tweet from the 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, expressing hope that the Johnson ticket would be allowed to take part in the upcoming presidential debates.

The following morning, Johnson made his biggest blunder in this election cycle: “What is Aleppo?” he asked on MSNBC’s morning programme.

Where does Johnson – where do any of us who were rooting for a third party to gain traction during this disheartening election – go from here?

Do not underestimate what Romney’s tweet has the potential to do for Johnson at this point in the race. He is days away from needing to reach the average of 15 per cent in five major polls to make it onto the presidential debate stage. While many believe that the endorsements needed to come flooding in months back for him to have a chance, dominating the news cycle two weeks (rather than two months) before you need to hit that magic number is a decent strategy as well.

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We don’t know if Romney’s tweet would have turned into a formal endorsement, but – given the former presidential candidate’s two month hiatus on Twitter and decision to break his silence with such a supportive nod to the Libertarian ticket – it’s reasonable to assume something more formal could have been on its way. And were Romney to endorse Johnson, it’s also reasonable to assume other senior figures may have followed suit.

Jump forward 12 hours: Johnson’s Aleppo blunder is crushing on multiple levels. The conflict in Syria and displacement of millions of people are no blip on the radar. Going into any interview, Johnson should be well equipped to answer questions on details surrounding the conflict, including specifics on the region. His inability to do so yesterday was a failure of his and also of his staff.

But this gaffe goes beyond Johnson and even this election cycle. His specific shortcomings on Syria will remind voters of their much wider concerns about the attitudes of Libertarians towards the rest of the world. As my colleague Chad Wilcox sombrely pointed out, this re-affirms every bad stereotype about Libertarian foreign policy – particularly the perception that it is merely “isolationism”.

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Voters will have to decide how commander-in-chief Johnson holds up on his own, and how he compares to commanders-in-chief Trump and Clinton. But one thing is now clear: none of the candidates running for President are fully equipped to get America’s foreign policy back on track.

Bloomberg caught up with Johnson, on film, almost immediately after his appearance on MSNBC. He seemed deflated, a little bumbling, off his game. The journalist asked Johnson if this should be reported as “significant”, probably expecting to report on Johnson’s excuse. It turned out, however, that he reported his apology:

“Sure it should,” Johnson said. “Believe me, no one is taking this more seriously than me. I feel horrible.”

Somehow – despite all of the gaffes, blunders, seedy deals and donations, and outright scandals coming from the Clinton and Trump camps – this is the first time we’ve heard a real apology, or seen self-reflection, in this general election.

What candidates say on the record matters. What they say off-the-record often matters more.

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