It says something about our political culture that while the mainstream media were obsessed last week with the latest bizarre pronouncements by Donald Trump, another businessman-turned-politician was becoming the first declared Republican presidential candidate, with far less fanfare.
In many ways, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson is the anti-Trump. While Trump is bombastic and self-aggrandizing, Johnson is self-effacing, often coming across as more wonk than politician. You’re not likely to see him in his own reality show any time soon.
Trump harrumphs about budget deficits and the national debt but in the past has supported single-payer health care and higher taxes. He still opposes the Ryan budget and any substantial entitlement reform. Trump has not put forward a single serious idea for deficit reduction. Johnson too has issues with Ryan’s plan — because it doesn’t go far enough.
Johnson criticizes Republicans for having demagogued Obamacare’s Medicare cuts, because those charges made it harder for Republicans to propose their own needed cuts. And Johnson would cut: He proposes repealing George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug benefit and including current seniors in changes to Medicare.
Johnson would reduce future Social Security benefits by changing the payment formula, indexing it to prices rather than to wages, and he is open to personal accounts. Overall, he calls for cutting government spending by $1.6 trillion this year to bring the budget into balance. That may not be entirely realistic, but it sets a high bar that other candidates will have to respond to.
And, unlike other Republican candidates, Johnson would not exempt defense from the budget knife.
No one can accuse Johnson of being a Johnny-come-lately to government cutting. During his two terms as governor, Johnson vetoed more than 750 pieces of legislation, more than the other 49 governors combined over that period. He left the state with a $1 billion surplus despite cutting taxes more than a dozen times.
On other issues: Johnson is also a strong supporter of school choice and wants to get the federal government out of education. He would repeal Obamacare and advocates the general Republican program of market-based health-care reforms. He opposed TARP and vigorously opposes corporate welfare, including farm subsidies.
Johnson is an economic conservative, not a culture warrior. If social conservatives were upset over Mitch Daniels’s call for a truce on social issues, they are not going to be happy with Johnson: He is pro-choice, though he opposes Medicaid or other taxpayer funding of abortion and his gubernatorial campaigns were endorsed by pro-life groups. He is comfortable with gay marriage. And his support for legalizing marijuana — borne out of being governor of a border state suffering from Mexico’s drug war — will get more than a little play from his opponents.
Still, if he can get through the primaries, that sort of social moderation combined with fiscal conservatism may play well with the sort of suburban swing voters that will be crucial to the GOP’s 2012 prospects.
It also remains to be seen how Johnson’s anti-war stance (he opposed the Iraq war and calls for pulling out of Afghanistan) will play with Republican primary voters. It is worth noting, however, that even among Republicans, polls show support for the war below 60 percent. Independents increasingly favor a pullout.
Still, Johnson has an appealing résumé that can go head-to-head with Trump’s. A triathlete who once climbed Mt. Everest, he built a one-man company into a multi-million-dollar corporation that employed more than 1,000 people.
Johnson remains a very long shot for the Republican nomination. He lacks money and organization. His name recognition is nearly nonexistent. That shot was made smaller still by Ron Paul’s announcement yesterday that he is setting up an exploratory committee for another run, thereby splitting the already modest libertarian vote.
On the other hand, Johnson, unlike Trump, is proposing serious ideas that are likely to influence the debate as it goes forward. In a flawed field, he will force the better-known candidates to defend their positions on spending, health care, and military adventurism. One might think that would be worth almost as much media attention as Trump’s latest birther buffoonery.
Maybe if Governor Johnson went on Dancing with the Stars.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.