Politics & Policy

2012: Year of the Libertarian?

Gary Johnson mulls a presidential bid.

If Gary Johnson were president, he would immediately cut all federal spending — entitlements, defense, education, everything — by 43 percent to rectify our fiscal blunders. And he’d just be getting started. In a recent interview with National Review Online, the former governor of New Mexico — and a rumored presidential candidate — outlined his governing philosophy and some of its practical applications.

What is that philosophy? In two words: limited government. From 1995 to 2003, Johnson served as governor of the Land of Enchantment, where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. During his tenure, he vetoed more bills than the other 49 governors combined — 750 in total, one third of which had been introduced by Republican legislators. Johnson also used his line-item-veto power thousands of times. He credits his heavy veto pen for eliminating New Mexico’s budget deficit and cutting the growth rate of New Mexico’s government in half.

#ad#It’s that willingness to cut spending — to say no — that Johnson feels is lacking in Washington, D.C. — and in his recently elected Republican successor, Susana Martinez. “I don’t view her as an adversary,” Johnson says, but “as governor, she promised that she would not cut education or Medicaid. I don’t know how that’s possible.”

He suggests that to encourage fiscal discipline, the federal government should pass a law that lays out a process for state bankruptcies — which are impossible under current law and would be hard to square with sovereign immunity – and makes it clear that federal bailouts are off the table. “Everybody would scream” if a state went into bankruptcy, Johnson admits, but a federal bailout would only encourage profligacy.

Johnson’s belief that government should do less, not more, applies to immigration as well. Although he says “we shouldn’t stop what we’re currently doing” to secure the border, Johnson rejects the idea of building a fence or deploying the National Guard as “a whole lot of money spent” without much effect. Instead, he thinks, we should create “an easy way to come across the border documented.” He defends Bush’s botched immigration package — “amnesty is not citizenship,” he reminds us — and warns against the “vilification of foreigners.” Comparing worries about illegal immigration to Cold War–era red-baiting, Johnson dubs immigrants “the new Russia.”

Johnson is similarly skeptical about federal prohibition of drugs. “We need to look at drugs first as a health issue, not as a criminal issue,” he contends. He’s an advocate for legal marijuana — from personal experience, he’s learned that “marijuana is safer than alcohol”  but when it comes to harsher drugs such as cocaine, he is less quick to block Uncle Sam’s paws. He doesn’t support legalization, and vaguely suggests “reduction strategies” to attenuate use.

On foreign policy, Johnson is a noninterventionist. He opposed the Iraq War from the start and believes we have stayed in Afghanistan too long. We went into the latter country to root out al-Qaeda, but “they’re not there anymore,” Johnson argues. On the home front, he thinks Pres. George W. Bush went too far. “I’d like to think I would have said no to the Patriot Act,” he says, but as a governor he didn’t have to take a stand.

The resulting devastation from our ill-considered intervention is the true message of WikiLeaks, Johnson adds. “It’s more an indictment of our own security than it is [of Julian Assange],” he says. The governor admits he hasn’t read any of the disclosed cables, but he assumes they’re “not going to cause anyone to lose their life.” When asked whether diplomacy requires a level of secrecy, Johnson recoils. He prefers a government that doesn’t lie to its people.

On nearly every issue — they differ on abortion and immigration — Johnson speaks in harmony with the man he endorsed for president in 2008: Rep. Ron Paul. When asked if he’s the reincarnation of the crusty libertarian, however, Johnson says he “disavows that.” “We need to expand the base. We can’t be the obstructionist party. Ron Paul got 9 percent of the Republican vote. That just doesn’t fly,” Johnson warns.

One difference between Johnson’s potential run and Paul’s failed one is the emergence of the Tea Party. Johnson has spoken at several rallies, and he cautions that the rank-and-file aren’t solidly libertarian. “They say, ‘Cut federal spending! Except Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, education, and border security,’” he wryly observes. And woe to the candidate who claims he will “harness the tea parties.” Johnson argues that a candidate who claims he will harness the Tea Party will only create ill will toward him in the movement. Still, he hopes to gain their support, and he “like[s] the excitement.”

The question remains, though, whether Johnson can generate excitement in his candidacy. Mild-mannered — pensive, really — Johnson isn’t one to rabble-rouse, considering each question quietly with a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes. No one could accuse him of trying too hard.

Indeed, Johnson seems most comfortable when not exercising government power, an endearing quality for a potential president.

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review Institute. 

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