Johnson, a triathlete and mountain climber who founded a successful construction business before getting into politics -- and recently left a job as CEO of a cannabis company -- is highly disciplined, yet easygoing in a way that neither Clinton nor Trump can pull off. More important, as he showed in a CNN town hall last week, he challenges voters to question their assumptions about which political positions go together.
Clinton wants to ban (at least some) guns but defends abortion rights, while Trump wants to ban abortion but defends gun rights. Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, want the government to respect abortion rights and gun rights.
"When it comes to choices in your own life," Johnson says, "you should be able to make those choices as long as you're not doing harm to others." That includes, for example, someone who "takes the edge off" at the end of the day with marijuana rather than alcohol. And when drug use causes problems, Johnson says, those are "health issues...not criminal justice issues."
The Libertarians' aversion to government meddling does not stop at the border. "We don't want to get involved in other countries' affairs," Johnson says. "We think that the interventions that have gone on have resulted in a less safe world."
Weld says he and Johnson would be "a pair of skeptics when people come and say, 'We should intervene here on the ground because these people are being mean to each other, and we can't stand that.'" He says arguments for war that are untethered to national security are "not going to sell as a matter of first impressions."
Clinton, by contrast, seems never to have met a military intervention she did not like. And while Trump says "we can't continue to be the policeman of the world," he nevertheless wants to boost military spending, which Johnson wants to cut.
At the same time, Clinton and Trump both view peaceful international exchanges with a suspicion the Libertarians do not share, seeing trade as something to be managed and massaged in the interest of fairness. Although "much of what goes on under the guise of free trade really is crony capitalism," Johnson says, the genuine article is mutually beneficial by definition. Weld is confident that "free trade is always going to benefit the United States."
The Libertarians' idea of free trade includes labor. While Trump wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico and promises to forcibly eject 11 million unauthorized immigrants, Johnson supports a liberalized work visa system that would facilitate rather than hinder the hiring of people from other countries.
Johnson thinks the same market forces that make international trade a win-win proposition can be used to improve education and health care, two parts of the economy that are dominated by government subsidies and regulations. Recognizing the distorting influence of the monstrous and mystifying Internal Revenue Code, he supports replacing the income tax with a national consumption tax.
Although many of these positions sound familiar, the Libertarian ticket is unique in espousing all of them, based on a consistent commitment to limited government and individual freedom. Johnson describes his message as "fiscally conservative" and "socially liberal," while Weld says "we want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom."
I'm not sure that's a winning combination, even in an election where the two major-party candidates are disliked by most voters. But it deserves a hearing.