Magazine article The American Conservative

Gary Johnson Throws a Party: The Former New Mexico Governor Becomes a Libertarian, and Perhaps a Spoiler

Magazine article The American Conservative

Gary Johnson Throws a Party: The Former New Mexico Governor Becomes a Libertarian, and Perhaps a Spoiler

Article excerpt

"Maybe this is dreaming," Gary Johnson says, "but I do think there is a chance of being up on the debate stage with President Obama and the Republican nominee." The former governor of New Mexico is used to big dreams. But for now he is focused on the somewhat more manageable task of winning the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination.

Johnson began his campaign as a Republican, in the party where he had spent his whole political career. He had endorsed Ron Paul in 2008, and many saw him as a logical choice to take Paul's libertarian ideas further into the mainstream. Johnson was younger, has executive experience, and has little baggage from the intra-libertarian ideological wars of the past. But he also had less money and organization, and when Paul decided to run again his supporters remained loyal. Paul quickly became a factor in Iowa, where he ultimately finished a strong third, and New Hampshire, where he ran second.

Johnson languished; he was invited to only two GOP debates, in one coming up with a memorable quip about his neighbor's dog creating more "shovel-ready" projects than Obama. (This was overshadowed by subsequent back-and-forth over whether Johnson had borrowed the joke from Rush Limbaugh.) The exclusion cost him dearly and still obviously annoys him. "I sent a letter to the Republican National Committee," he says. "I didn't ask them to make sure I was included in the debates. I asked to be included in the polls they were using to decide who to include in the debates."

His irritation is justified. Here was a two-term governor of a swing state with a record of balancing the budget and cutting taxes, yet he could not even get on the same debate stage as an ex-CEO of a midsized pizza company or a three-term congressional backbencher. When Johnson was listed in the polls, he was competitive with Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, who were both included in most debates. The networks treated Johnson like Buddy Roemer (another former governor) and fringe candidate Fred Karger.

In December, Johnson decided he had had enough. He bolted the Republican Party and announced he was seeking the Libertarian nomination. In some respects, the LP is a much better fit. Johnson is a fiscal conservative, but he also supports gay marriage, open immigration, and legal abortion until fetal viability. He raised eyebrows by reaching out to pagan voters and other groups alien to the Christian right. Some of this may have been happenstance rather than deliberate strategy--running as a Republican in New Mexico, Johnson forged a tactical alliance with pro-lifers on moderate abortion restrictions despite his pro-choice stance--but opposition to the drug war has been a defining stance for him.

During the 1990s, Johnson was the only governor in the country to advocate drug decriminalization. No state's chief executive has been eager to break that ground since. Johnson favors the full legalization of marijuana and argues that drug addiction should be treated as a medical problem rather than a crime. He is cheerfully open about his own youthful drug use--"I never exhaled," he told the New Republic-and even admitted to the Weekly Standard that he had used marijuana for medicinal purposes from 2005 to 2008 after fracturing a vertebra in a paragliding accident.

While all of this is considered terribly eccentric in Republican circles, Johnson's history is an asset in the Libertarian Party. But the ex-governor isn't some stoner out of "Dazed and Confused" or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." He built a multimillion-dollar construction business. He is an avid athlete who climbs mountains, runs, and bicycles. And he was by most accounts a successful governor.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Johnson cut taxes 14 times and never approved a single tax increase. Yet by the time he left office in 2003, New Mexico was one of only four states with a balanced budget. That's because Johnson was a steadfast foe of government spending, earning the nickname "Governor Veto. …

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