Former CIA agent Evan McMullin announces his presidential campaign as an Independent candidate last month. (George Frey/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Many libertarian-inclined conservatives unable to stomach either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton thought former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson would be a respectable alternative. He is turning out not to be.

The Post reports on the Libertarian ticket’s appearance on MSNBC:

Johnson, who had been pilloried for blanking on the relevance of the Syrian city of Aleppo in another MSNBC interview, whiffed his way through an even easier foreign policy question.

“Who’s your favorite foreign leader?” [Chris] Matthews asked.

“Who’s my favorite?” Johnson replied.

“Anywhere in the continents,” Matthews said. “Any country. Name one foreign leader that you look up to.”

William Weld, Johnson’s running mate, chimed in with an assist: “I’m with Shimon Peres.”

“I’m talking about living, okay?” Matthews said. “You gotta do this. Any continent. Canada, Mexico?”

“I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment,” Johnson said.

“In the whole world!” Matthews said. “Anybody in the world.”

“I know, I know,” Johnson said.

“Pick any leader,” Matthews said.

“The former president of Mexico,” Johnson said.

“Which one?” Matthews said.

“I’m having a brain freeze,” Johnson said.

Needless to say, the joke about his position on legalized marijuana started flying after that. Johnson come across not just as an isolationist but also as a joke. So what’s a #NeverEitherOneofThem conservative to do?

Well, Evan McMullin is up to 2 percent (better than nothing) and ahead of Green Party Jill Stein in the latest PPP poll. While Johnson gets flakier, McMullin is gaining gravitas. After Trump’s horrible performance at Monday’s debate, McMullin wrote: “He is surrounded by employees of Vladimir Putin, and is openly infatuated with the Russian strongman. His new cabal of advisers would be familiar in the third world; every strongman has a propagandist like Trump’s new campaign CEO, Steve Bannon — a man who happily profits from pushing racial discord, ethnic strife, and overt anti-Semitism.”

Unlike Clinton and Trump he has the nerve to stand up for free trade:

McMullin’s stance on trade is in line with traditional conservative ways of thinking: It is largely good for America. He believes retreating from the global trade stage would be unwise and argues that manufacturing job loss is not a result of trade but instead technology, meaning retraining workers for new jobs in new industries is the better way.

He also backs up his beliefs with facts: the U.S. exports over $2 trillion of goods and services to other countries annually, comprising about 12% of U.S. GDP and supporting around 12 million jobs.

Likewise, while they are whistling through the fiscal graveyard, McMullin supports a premium support plan (i.e. defined-benefit plan) for Medicare, and on Social Security favors “gradually paring back benefits for the wealthiest seniors over the next 20 to 30 years while at the same time gradually raising the retirement age.” Whether you think these are precisely the right remedies, he at least has a coherent approach to a problem the other two continue to ignore.

On immigration, he rejects Trump anti-growth exclusionary approach. (He “would offer a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants already in the United States — something most agree would be good for those already living here and contributing to the American economy.”)

Unlike Johnson, he knows something about foreign policy having served overseas in the CIA. He would not be a lap dog for Vladimir Putin. He’s the only candidate specifically advocating “changing the conditions on the battlefield” in Syria to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. He points out that we already have “boots on the ground” in Iraq and posits that support for local troops can be augmented by U.S. Special Operations forces. On the policing issue that has spawned Black Lives Matter, he argues that we need leadership favoring “reconciliation.”

At this point he seems like a much sounder alternative for conservatives than Johnson. The concern about “throwing your vote away” should not trouble the vast majority of Americans outside of swing states. If they cannot bear to vote for Clinton, a regular GOP voter at least can take his support away from Trump in closely contested states.

Moreover, for Republicans who’ve given up on the race, and frankly on the party, McMullin points the way to a new sort of center-right party — more appealing to younger voters (he’s barely 40 years old), confident, measured on foreign policy, pro-growth on economic issues and inclusive in tone. It’s not the know-nothing message of Trump nor the rigidly right-wing message of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (anti-immigration, anti-gay marriage, hostile toward government).

McMullin is not going to win in 2016, but with the disintegration of Johnson and the reminder of Trump’s abject unfitness, despondent Republicans can at least signal that McMullin’s agenda is the direction in which the party should head.