Gary Johnson, Libertarian
Our story in Aug. 1 paper, “Obama advisers see hope in 3rd parties,” highlighted Gary Johnson, the nominee of the Libertarian Party. By coincidence, Johnson was in Seattle that day, and I spent 45 minutes with him.
The point of the story was that Johnson and another third-party candidate could draw away Romney votes in key states and hand the election to Obama. That is possible. It is what Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in Florida in 2000.
I asked Johnson if the prospect of being the Nader of 2012 bothers him.
“It doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said.
Johnson, 59, was a Republican because he is for balancing budgets without tax increases and cutting back on the welfare state. As the Republican governor of New Mexico 1995-2003, he says, he vetoed hundreds of spending bills.
New Mexico is a “blue” state, 47% Hispanic. Johnson won the governorship the first time with 49.8 percent of the vote in a race against an incumbent Democrat and a third-party Green. He won the second time with 54.5 percent. In 2008 he supported libertarian Republican Ron Paul for president, and in 2012 Johnson announced a run himself. He would have had Paul’s supporters this year, except that Paul ran again and kept them for himself.
Johnson was shut out of most of the Republican presidential debates. He told me several media organizations said they would include anyone with 2 percent, or 4 percent, in certain polls—and those polls didn’t include him. He still fumes about that. In one case, he said, he had a 4 percent poll and was left out anyway. And without media attention, his campaign died.
“Regrettably, you can’t crawl out from under a culvert and run for president of the United States,” Johnson says. (Maybe that’s not so regrettable. I've had to listen to some culvert crawlers, and there is something to be said for shunning them.)
Late last year Johnson suspended his campaign as a Republican and went over to the Libertarians, who were glad to have him. In 2008 for president they ran another former Republican, Georgia ex-Rep. Bob Barr, but Barr had been a drug warrior not too long before and a lot of Libertarians had to hold their noses to accept him. Johnson is quite liberal on civil liberties. In an ACLU ranking on civil liberties, Johnson was rated “good” on 21 of 24 questions, which was higher than Ron Paul (18) or Barack Obama (16). On that survey, the ACLU rated Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney at zero.
Johnson famously came out for legalization of marijuana when he was governor. That’s a radical position for a Republican, but not for Libertarians, whose standard position is to legalize them all. So I asked him: What about methamphetamine? I can imagine marijuana being a commercial product; at a “dispensary” less than a mile from my house, it already is one. But how about meth? Could it ever be a product of a company that a business license, a street address, paid taxes, bought insurance, and was invited to membership in the Rotary Club? (My answer: no.)
“Methamphetamine is a classic prohibition drug,” Johnson said, explaining that a "prohibition drug" is in the market because safer alternatives are too difficult to make in a kitchen sink. If there were no war on drugs, he argued, the pharmaceutical companies would make a version of cocaine, or some other drug, that would pleasantly addle people's minds without wrecking their health. In any case, Johnson is a libertarian: if adults are informed that a drug is going to wreck their health and they still want it, he says, the government should let them have it, and let them take the consequences of it.
Like many Libertarians, Johnson argues that the average American really agrees with him. I think that's an exaggeration; the average American political convictions are so mushy that you can't fit him in any camp, and of the ones with fixed ideas,only a minority are in his camp. Even fewer will vote for a third party. Nationally, a Libertarian candidate for president broke the 1 percent barrier only once, in 1980. Johnson could reach that mark in Washington because the state has a relatively high population of Paul supporters, and because Washington will be an Obama state no matter how they vote.
Achenblog by Joel Achenbach
Postman On Politics