Presidential candidate Gary Johnson strays from the typical Republican script. Can that launch him ahead of Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and other predictably conservative White House hopefuls? Should it?
“I’m more in the camp of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis,” says Republican presidential hopeful Gary Johnson when asked whether he can shed his “long-shot” status and become a dark horse in the 2012 election, as those three candidates did in their respective races.
It’s rare that a Republican running for the White House would compare himself to Democratic leaders who still raise ire on the right, but as the scant press about Johnson often notes, the former New Mexico governor is a Republican of a different breed.
THE THIN RED LINE:
Let’s be absolutely clear about something: the more moderate Johnson and his fellow Republicans agree on many, many policy issues.
Take, for example, the TSA, one of the right wing’s favorite targets. Governor Johnson has no kind words for the security agency.
“I’m former governor of New Mexico; I go through the security line. They know who I am, yet they give me the entire pat down,” says Johnson. “I hate being treated as a criminal.”
Rather than frisking every able-bodied, and sometimes not able-bodied, American, Johnson suggests the TSA should instead target “high-risk” individuals, though remains vague on that person’s pre-requisites.
“I don’t have that definition [of 'high-risk'] for you, but I know that there is profiling that goes on in Israel that it’s very effective,” says Johnson, without acknowledging that Israel’s methods include investigating passengers ahead of their airport arrival. “I just think that we could implement smarter policy that would be less intrusive and as safe.”
Along with regulating the TSA, Johnson, like all the other Republican candidates, believes the dreaded “big government” should be cut 43% across the board, including on military spending, and that certain offices should be eliminated all together.
“I would advocate abolishing the Federal Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development,” he says. “Housing and Urban Development: I don’t see any function. Is there a lack of individuals owning homes in this country, or affordable housing? I don’t think so. It’s far outgrown its intent or purpose.”
ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS:
In terms of taxes, it should come as no surprise that Johnson loathes them.
He even boasts on his campaign website that during his nine years as New Mexico’s governor, from 1995 until 2003, he vetoed 750 bills to keep taxes low, lest those revenues turn into governmental “largesse.”
“Whenever taxes get raised to meet a specific shortfall, those revenues become largesse,” the self-described Jeffersonian Republican told me. “The government comes up with a whole new program as opposed to saying, ‘Okay, we got through that shortfall, now we can actually reduce taxes back to where they were.’”
Rather than maintaining our current tax system, Johnson proposes we enact the controversial “Fair Tax”, a 23% consumption tax on goods and services that Johnson says will eradicate the income tax, the IRS, federal withholdings from social security and business-to-business taxes.
While Fair Tax critics claim the policy would raises prices on goods and swell the underground market, Johnson maintains he knows business, and that he has the history to back up his claim.
Before successfully running for Governor in 1994, his first political office ever, Johnson spent nearly two decades growing his one-man handyman business into a booming state enterprise with over 1,000 employees and once won a $38 million contract with Intel.
And, paralleling another businessman bragard, Mitt Romney, Johnson says his executive experience lends itself well to the highest office in the land.
“I may have hired and fired more people than anyone else running for this office,” the governor explains when asked why business helps in the executive branch. Getting rid of employees who “don’t work in the situation that you have for them” helps save a company time and money. The same is true with the government, only the stakes are higher: “[You need] somebody who understands what it takes to hire good people and how to actually correct situations that don’t work out.”
A follower of Republican trends, Johnson subscribes to strict constitutionalism.
In fact, his political advocacy group, Our America Initiative, stands by a reliably conservative principle, “The Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning,” and Johnson himself promises to appoint only conservative judges.
That organization and Johnson also both think abortion should be regulated state-by-state, although he does say that doesn’t agree with manipulative GOP-led laws requiring doctors to show women a sonogram or play the fetus’ heartbeat before an abortion.
“I would not have signed off on that kind of legislation. I just think that very fundamentally this is a choice that only the woman can make. To me this sounds like there’s coercion being used here, and that’s just my own personal opinion,” opines the governor. “But I do believe that states have the right and should be in the place to determine these issues.”
Our America Initiative takes the state argument one step further to the right: “Any court decision that does not follow this original meaning of the Constitution should be revisited. That is particularly true of decisions such as Roe vs. Wade, which have expanded the reach of the Federal government into areas of society never envisioned in the Constitution. With the overturning of Roe vs Wade, laws regarding abortion would be decided by the individual states.”
OPEN TO DEBATE:
Despite some of Johnson’s ardently conservative policies and beliefs, he takes a more open-minded approach on at least some social policy.
While the candidate prefers civil unions and declares on his website that he’s against gay marriage, he did tell me he’s “open for debate” on the controversial issue, which he compares to the civil rights fight.
“I’m not as versed on it as I should be, but I’m open to the debate or the notion that this may be — that gay rights may be on par with civil rights,” he admits. “In other words, if you left civil rights to the states, would — and I just say this without knowing the answer — would Mississippi still be segregated? I don’t know, but it was a federal issue.”
“Gay rights, I’m open to the debate, and it may be a federal issue and by that, I mean that it would be guaranteed constitutionally, as a constitutional right regardless of what state you live in,” he says.
Asked about the conservative outrage over President Obama’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, Johnson replies, “He wouldn’t come under conservative fire from [me].”
But Johnson’s less malleable when it comes to another pressing LGBT issue, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Johnson insists he won’t endorse such legislation.
Though the former businessman agrees that “individuals should not be discriminated against when it comes to employment because of gender,” he also worries that ENDA creates a protected class, thereby allowing ill-suited workers to slide by. “[Such legislation] ends up often times to be protectionist.”
“From the stand point, if the individual involved is, in this case, ‘transsexual,’ and the employer terminates the employee, not because they’re transsexual, but because they’re actually doing a really poor job, then this is an individual who becomes part of a protected class,” the former governor remarks, using an out-dated term, “transsexual.”
Archaic language side, Johnson still comes off as far more compassionate than some other GOP candidates, including Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, both of whom recently signed onto a socially conservative “marriage pledge” that describes homosexuality a choice and vows virulent opposition to Sharia Law.
Johnson actually managed to get some press for his opposition to that pledge, which he describes to me as “anti-American:” “It’s everything that this country does not stand for. What aspects of our lives have been adversely effected by Sharia law? It seems to me to be just inflammatory to Muslims.”
THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER:
Johnson’s biggest claim to political fame, however, comes in the form of his marijuana policy.
The former governor readily admits to smoking weed during his youth, and then again between 2005 and 2007, as he recovered from a paragliding accident and medicinal marijuana was still illegal in New Mexico.
Seeing the medicinal benefits of the herb first hand, Johnson promises he would take a far more liberal stance on marijuana than President Obama.
“Marijuana would be a states issue, that’s the reality, just like alcohol,” he says. “But it’s my understanding that as President of the United States, I could and would by executive order remove marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic, and I would do everything that I could administratively to decriminalize, to move the drug issue from a criminal issue to a health issue.”
His opposition to taxes notwithstanding, Johnson says any legalized dope would indeed be levied.
While we’re on the subject of gardening, it’s worth noting that Johnson has nothing but kind words for the Environmental Protection Agency, long an anathema to the big oil-loving GOP.
“I happen to think that the EPA is a great example of an agency that, you know, really does identify bad actors, pollutors — without the EPA, maybe we would have pollutors that we didn’t otherwise, and when it comes to enforcing action against bad actors, that the EPA plays a really important role in that,” says Johnson, while also asserting that the agency would still be trimmed.
So what kind of electoral game is Johnson trying to play?
He’s not conservative enough for the ultra right wing currently being courted in Iowa, and he’s not progressive enough to snatch up left-leaning independents. But according to the governor, he doesn’t need to play traditional political tricks like flip-flopping to win over social conservatives.
“I never got those social conservative votes in New Mexico in the primary, but all of them votes in the general election, where they focused on social issues to the pocket book,” Johnson recalls. “I don’t expect to get the social conservative vote in the primary.”
As for the Tea Party, Johnson describes them as a “mixed bag:” “They’re libertarian-leaning and also socially conservative-leaning, it just depends on which Tea Party member you talk to, so I don’t know if the Tea Party is really different than the makeup of the Republican Party.”
While he will maintain a small presence in socially conservative Iowa, Johnson will focus his campaign in New Hampshire, a far more moderate locale.
“I’m putting my chips on the table in New Hampshire, where New Hampshireites take it as an obligation to go out and meet and listen to every candidate that’s running; that’s the environment that I’m believing I’ll do well in.” His campaign, then, may indeed look like Bill Clinton’s 1992 run.
Clinton and the other candidates largely avoided Iowa, primary opponent Tom Harkins’ home state, leaving the future president time, money and energy to focus on New Hampshire, where he finished, by surprise, in second-place. If Johnson can break through the early states, and the media, he could indeed become a more viable Republican nominee.
He, however, has no doubts.
“Right now, I’m being excluded from the media spotlight, but at some point the spotlight will shine brightly on me, and I’ll respond in a way that I’m going to give people what they are actually looking for,” says Johnson, sounding less like a long-shot and more like a candidate who could upset the race.