The Corner

Politics & Policy

How Fiscally Conservative Is Gary Johnson?

In response to Obama’s Lead: Big Numbers Last Week, Smaller Numbers This Week

Paul Gessing purports to refute the claims I make regarding Gary Johnson’s fiscal record. He does this in three ways.

Firstly, Gessing states Johnson’s favorite claim; he vetoed many, many, bills. Like Clinton’s “achievement” of frequent flyer miles, though, this is a procedural rather than a substantial claim. Vetoing bills and visiting foreigners are ways to achieve policy aims, not substitutes for accomplishment. If Republicans had won six more senate seats in 2014, Obama would have been vetoing a bill a week since. It wouldn’t have made him a fiscal conservative or a competent executive.

Secondly, Gessing notes that using an alternative measure for spending, Johnson’s numbers come down. Gessing says that this is because his measure excludes federal grants. I think it’s reasonable to hold Johnson responsible for his part in the entire budget; he took over after the Lopez federalist revolution made aggressive application for federal funds more optional and other governors took less. Still, reasonable people can disagree about the best metric. A bigger problem is that Gessing’s data helps Johnson by declaring him not responsible for spending the considerable sums he borrowed (bonds are not included in the general fund revenue) — unfunded expenditure is no more conservative than traditional spending. Nonetheless, I agree with the larger point. Johnson wasn’t the worst governor when it came to public spending, but still wasn’t good. It’s true that he had a Democratic legislature, but plenty of governors manage to avoid major budget growth even with blue colleagues. If one wants to lower the bar to say that most governors are fiscal conservatives, then fine, include him. Johnson himself does not, however. He criticizes those with better records than his own, such as when he falsely claims that Bush and Obama each doubled the debt. If doubling would be unacceptably fiscally liberal, his own 150 percent increase cannot be acceptable.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Johnson’s routine opportunism highlights Gessing’s most important refutation. Gessing begs the question and claims that Johnson is running as a fiscal conservative now. Gessing thus slides over the many previous contradictions: e.g. does Johnson favor free-trade agreements (as he did here), or would he have vetoed NAFTA (as he suggests here, on the absurd grounds that a law whose effect is felt by business almost entirely in across the board tariff cuts benefits big businesses over small)? Where does he stand on Social Security reform? The lack of a consistent Johnson position on the key spending issues in the past still matters though, because he has no new promises on spending.

This cycle, Johnson simply vaguely promises to balance the budget. Arch fiscal conservative Hillary Clinton is likewise campaigning against “running up the debt.” As with Clinton’s, if you go to the Johnson’s campaign site, you’ll find nothing about how to achieve that this other than tax proposals (for Johnson, moving to a VAT). In other words, Johnson’s fiscal position is that of a less-wonkish Huckabee ’08. Again, if you set the bar low enough, you can call Johnson a fiscal conservative, but if you do, you’ve got to work pretty hard to find fiscally liberal candidates. I’m sure he would do better fiscally than he did as governor, but with the likely Congress, so would Clinton and Trump.

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