SPEAKING TO A liberal audience at the New America Foundation in May, Bill Richardson, the half-Hispanic governor of New Mexico, had a chance to create a campaign image from scratch. He chose this one: "I'm a market-oriented Democrat." His energy solutions didn't involve reregulating utilities or taxing the windfall profits of oil companies. "I want to set mandates," he said instead, "and let the market respond."
Richardson's long resume includes a lengthy career as a congressman and a stint as Bill Clinton's final secretary of energy. (Before the second Democratic debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, the governor's raucous supporters chanted all of his job titles.) Elected governor in 2002, Richardson inherited a largely Democratic legislature and a persistently poor state. At a time when other Democrats were defining themselves by their opposition to President Bush's tax cuts, Richardson attacked state taxes. He slashed the top state income tax rate by 40 percent, and he cut the capital gains tax in half. In 2005 the libertarian Cato Institute gave Richardson a B on its biennial gubernatorial Fiscal Policy Report Card--higher, as his flacks love to point out, than the grades received by Florida's Jeb Bush and Massachusetts' Mitt Romney.
According to Cato's election analysis, 72 percent of libertarian-leaning voters supported George W. Bush in 2000. Six years later, only 59 percent backed the Republicans--a significant shift away from the GOP. Bill Richardson could be the candidate who appeals to those disaffected voters. But it's not clear, from his record and from his style of governing, that he'll deserve them.
Richardson has collected unusually warm praise from free market activists and even pocketed a little money from people who donate to libertarian think tanks and causes. The anti-tax Club for Growth summed it up in a cautiously pro-Richardson press release welcoming the governor into the race: "A different kind of Democrat, hopefully."
"He really might appeal to the libertarian vote," says David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute. "I've heard a number of governors pegged as 'libertarian Democrat,' and usually when I look into their records, it doesn't hold up. But Richardson comes close."
He looks especially attractive when compared to his opponents. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has drawn up a vision of "shared prosperity" in which higher taxes on wealthy Americans will pay for more and better transfer payments. Dark horse John Edwards, whose man-of-the-people shtick makes Huey Long look like Ivan Boesky, wants to return to pre-Bush tax levels and have the government pay for universal college and a national jobs program. Barack Obama has co-sponsored the Fair Pay Act of 2007, which would task the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with regulating the pay for men and women in "equivalent jobs."
In the first Democratic debate, Richardson dressed down the rest of the field's penchant for bigger government: "As Democrats, I just hope that we always don't think of new taxes to pay for programs."
"Bill believes that people should have freedom to live their lives the way we want to live them," says Ned Farquhar, who helped write the governor's campaign autobiography, Between Worlds, and is working closely with him on an environment-focused sequel. "That's the whole basis of this society, that we ought to respect each other's rights. He's seen the tyranny of the majority, and I think it's committed him to protecting the rights of minorities, from gay rights to gun rights."
All this hype is a bit perplexing to Richardson's predecessor, former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson. A strong supporter of school choice and drug decriminalization, Johnson was, without much debate, America's most libertarian state executive.
"I don't think Bill Richardson has got much to offer libertarians," …