I am in a group phone interview with Gary Johnson, the former construction-company owner and libertarian-leaning Republican who was governor of New Mexico for two terms, from 1995 to 2003. Under the banner “You Say You Want a Revolution?” Johnson has set up the web page, OurAmericaInitiative.com, to test the waters and raise money. Under IRS rule 501(c)(4), he says, “I cannot comment on my desire to run for any federal office,” but it is understood that we are talking of a possible run for president in 2012 on the Republican ticket.
In 2008, Johnson supported Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas – a commitment few prominent Republicans dared to make. Johnson is like Paul in many of the positions he takes, but he is less socially conservative. Johnson hails from a less conservative place than the Texas coast: New Mexico voter registrations are 2-to-l Democrat. And Johnson was a state governor, a position much less suited to the lone dissenter role that Paul plays as one among 435 Representatives.
Johnson has the advantage of being 18 years younger than Paul. He will turn 59 in 2012; Paul will turn 77, and if he runs again for president, it will be for a term that will end when he is 81. Johnson’s political positions also make him less obviously unelectable than Paul.
In this group phone interview, which has been set up by the Republican Liberty Caucus, several of the interviewers are libertarians trying to gauge how hardcore Johnson is. He is careful, sometimes saying he “understands” a certain view without saying he agrees with it, or that he would sign a bill on a certain issue if Congress sent it to him, without saying he would push that view.
His reminder that a president is the leader of only one branch of government is a way of saying to his base: be realistic. If he is to be a serious candidate he can’t be too radical.
Johnson is most known for one idea, his advocacy of legalizing marijuana. It was a radical idea when he offered it a decade ago, and if it is closer to realization now – my city, Seattle, has stopped prosecuting for marijuana posses- sion – it is still pretty radical. In our interview Johnson does not step away from this. He immediately adds that he’s not for any leniency toward people who do anything harmful to others while stoned, but that if they are adults and just want to smoke it, the government should leave them alone. Marijuana, he says, is “the only drug I’m advocating legalizing.” For the others, he is for “harm reduction strategies,” meaning they would remain illegal, but use would be treated as “a health problem” rather than a crime problem.
This is not as hardcore as many libertarians would like, but within the Republican Party it is a bold position, so bold that he will have to work to establish his bona fides with many Republicans. His major theme will be a much safer one: to “stop the spending.”
“The bottom line is, Republicans are penny pinchers,” he says, talking about Republican voters, if not the crew they elected under George W. Bush. Republican voters, he says, “really care about spending. They really care about smaller government.” Johnson promises to be different from the Bush Republicans, and he has a record to back it up. In eight years as governor of New Mexico he vetoed 750 bills and excised a great deal of spending by using the line-item veto. Listen to his critics: they slam him for being cheap, never for bloating the government.
Even President Obama now admits that spending needs an application of brakes, so there is little risk in criticizing spending. But with money, what matters is how much. And you get an idea of a candidate’s seriousness by asking about other things the government does.
On spending, Johnson is a serious guy. When asked about two of the most expensive federal programs, Medicare and Medicaid, he says, “The federal government should just get out, and return it to the states.”
“Return it to the states” can be either a strategy for radical change, as in Johnson’s comment on Medicare and Medicaid, or a formula for conservative politicians to paper over a split in their base, or both. Abortion, for example. Ron Paul thinks
“I understand,” sats Johnson,”that since 1913, the Federal Reserve has reduced the dollar to a nickel, and I fully expect it to take it to a penny.”
abortion is murder. He has talked about overturning Roe v. Wade – which legalized abortion for the whole country – so that individual states can ban abortion if they wish. That is a strategy for radical change, and also a concession to voters in states like mine, which are pro-abortion.
Johnson says he is for the right of abortion “to the point of viability,” and then against it. But he also says this is a matter for each state to decide. This sounds to me more like papering over a crack.
A questioner asked Johnson whether he was for overturn- ing Roe v. Wade. The clear implication of his position is that he is. If the abortion question is to revert to the states, Roe v. Wade falls. But in American politics if you say you want to overturn it, you are labeled as “against abortion rights,” and Johnson doesn’t want that label.
The president’s power over that issue lies in appointing justices to the Supreme Court. Johnson says he favors judges who follow original intent. In conservative land, that is code for “overturn Roe” (and a reminder that the president cannot do it alone). But the questioner is not satisfied with code. He asks the question again.
Johnson replies with a classic paper-over-the-crack answer: “If you believe the original intent was to outlaw abortion, then my appointment to the Court should end up doing that.”
Which is code for saying, don’t push me on this.
Johnson says he is against gay marriage but for gay civil unions, which legally amount to the same thing but avoid that electric word, “marriage.” A questioner asks whether he would repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays, and he says, “Yes. I support this being more open.”
On immigration, Johnson takes a softer line than Paul, who wants to end citizenship for babies of illegal parents and supported construction of a border fence. Johnson says he is generally pro-immigration. In New Mexico, he says, immi- grants “are an asset.” He doesn’t come out for free immigration, which some libertarians support – and which would destroy his chances in the Republican Party.
Foreign policy is another area in which Johnson defines himself carefully. He says, “I don’t think our security is threatened in Iraq or Afghanistan.” He says he would bring U.S. soldiers home.
Several questioners push for more specifics. Eric Carter in Los Angeles wants to know, regarding nuclear weapons in Iran, whether Johnson would use a military strike as a last resort.
“As a last resort, yes,” he says.
Stephen Bone of Decatur, Illinois, asks whether this means that Johnson supports preemptive war. “No, absolutely no,” Johnson says. “I’m not for a notion of first strike.”
An American in Nigeria asks whether Johnson accepts military interventions. “I need to be convinced that we should be intervening anywhere,” Johnson says. “I come at it skeptically.”
Carter jumps in again. What are Johnson’s “general thoughts regarding nuclear proliferation?” Is bombing Iran acceptable as a last resort?
“If the U.S. is going to be attacked with nuclear weapons – this is the example I thought you were offering,” Johnson says. “Yeah, then we need to act.”
What if they just have the weapons?
Johnson points out that Pakistan, India, and North Korea have the weapons, implying that possession is not enough to justify a strike. He says: “I am not going to shy away at all from responsibility for protecting the country. But we don’t want to be an interventionist, imperialistic country.”
He is asked about the U.S. commitment to Israel – another bullet in Republican politics. He dodges it. “I understand our support of Israel,” he says. He turns it into a question about foreign aid generally, which he says “needs to be examined, given that we’re paying for all this with money we don’t have.”
He talks about several free-market issues and is in favor of more market forces in medicine, joking about the prospect of a “Gall Bladders ‘R’ Us.” He is for tort reform. In the public schools, he would support a “full voucher system.” But the questioners are libertarians, and are more interested in the frontier of his beliefs.
I ask him about Ron Paul’s more exotic positions – abolishing the Federal Reserve, reinstating the gold standard, and warnings against a North American Union. About the purported NAU, Johnson says, “I don’t have an opinion on his statement regarding that.” He adds that he is for “build- ing bridges” to Mexico, but that he does not want “to dilute our sovereignty in any way whatever.” (These are totally safe answers. Even Obama would have agreed with the last one.)
On to the Fed. The campaign against the Fed is a big deal for much of the Paul constituency, and it marks them as non- mainstream.
Here is how Johnson tackles it: “I think the Federal Reserve should be audited.” (Paul has an audit-the-Fed bill that has garnered wide support.) “I am not advocating the abolishment of the Federal Reserve.” Nor is he for making the Fed an arm of Congress: “I don’t want to see Barney Frank control- ling the Federal Reserve,” he says.
He goes on, saying, “I understand that since 1913 the Federal Reserve has reduced the dollar to a nickel, and I fully expect it to take it to a penny.” He says, “I understand the arguments” for a gold-backed currency, and if Congress passed a bill for a gold-backed dollar, “it’s something I would probably ink.” But he is not advocating it now. He notes that 99% of economists are against it, and he is not going to push it. But if you imagine a paper dollar spectrum, running from the Swiss franc to the Zimbabwe dollar, Johnson is at the “hard” end: “The government should be pursuing a strong dollar policy, not weak dollar policies.”
A man from New Mexico asks him whether he’s for “free banking or state banks in competition with the Federal Reserve.” This is very exotic stuff, and Johnson appears not to see it. He takes the question to mean competition in general and says, “I guess I’m completely in favor of that notion.”
Janet Rose of Raleigh, NC asks him what books have influenced him. This is a dangerous question, because if Johnson praises an author, it will be taken as an endorsement of the most outré thing that author says. He knows enough to dodge it. “I wouldn’t point at anyone,” he says.
George Hudson, a Ron Paul supporter from Roseville, CA, asks Johnson to define the proper role of government. “I’m for national defense,” Johnson says. “I’m for freedom and liberty, not entitlements, and for not spending more money than what we have.”
Hudson is opposed on principle to welfare, and asks if Johnson is. Johnson neither affirms nor denies this, but says he is opposed to “borrowing dollars to pay entitlements.”
James Ostrowski of Buffalo, NY, a contributor to LewRockwell.com, asks Johnson if he would get rid of the FDA and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Education.
“Potentially there are agencies that could be eliminated,” Johnson says. “I understand the arguments. If the legislation were presented to me, yeah, these are areas that need to be cut or eliminated.” But he added, “In New Mexico I proposed abolishing agencies. None of these proposals went anywhere in the legislature.”
Which was a way of saying: don’t expect anything too radical. I think Johnson wants to get elected.
I ask him what views would take the most salesmanship to convince his fellow Republicans. He replies, “I believe that a majority of Republicans hold these views.”
That is optimistic. Very optimistic. But then, in his business, an optimist is what you have to be.