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In Iowa, Gary Johnson calls for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and national defense

Former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson is sometimes referred to as a libertarian for his limited government positions, of which he says he’s seen a real embrace. And after decades of growing government spending, Johnson believes the country is finally serious about addressing the federal budget deficit.

“I’ve spent my entire life watching government spend more money than it takes in. My entire life I’ve believed this to to be unsustainable,” Johnson said during an interview with The Iowa Independent at a coffee shop in Ames. “I think we’re here, I think we’re here right now. I think we’re on the verge of an imminent financial collapse unless we fix government spending.”

Johnson has been traveling the country with Our America Initiative, a 501(c)4 nonprofit political advocacy committee, spreading that message. He’s made stops in Iowa before, and stirred media speculation about a possible presidential run in 2012. Because of his nonprofit status, however, he refuses to give any clues, other than he wants to speak in Iowa to at least influence the debate when caucus time comes.

Fred Thompson had some legal issues during his campaign for crossing the line over his nonprofit status, Johnson said, “and I hope the fact that he was a 501(c)4 isn’t a portend for how successful this might be.”

His first trial run may come this weekend when he speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, and has his name included in the straw poll.

But even if he’s not running for office, at least not yet, he already has a plan for how to trim the deficit, starting with entitlement programs and national defense.

“We’re nation building all over the planet when we have our own nation to build,” Johnson said.

Johnson initially thought the invasion of Afghanistan was totally warranted, with America sending the military to take out Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda. But they’re not there anymore, he said.

“I would get out Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow believing that the issues we will face getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow will be the same issues that we’ll face 25 years from now, if that’s when we finally decide to get out,” Johnson said. “Worst of all, more service men and women will lose their lives.”

Beyond the Middle East, Johnson says he’s confounded on why the U.S. still has troops in Europe.

“I can’t find anyone who thinks that’s warranted,” he said.

Johnson explained the U.S. is spending 52 cents out of the worldwide dollar on military spending, while China is spending 9 cents of that dollar.

“If we reduce our expenditures to where we’re spending 29 cents of the dollar,” Johnson said, “it’d still be triple of what China’s spending.”

If Johnson does run for the 2012 GOP nomination, he would enter the race with similar platform stances as U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) did in 2008.

The libertarian leaning Paul was the only Republican advocating immediate draw downs of military operations in the Middle East and trimming national defense. And Paul finished ahead of higher-profile candidates like Giuliani and Thompson, and he gained more votes than Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and John McCain in a primary at least once. He also built the grassroots “Ron Paul Revolution,” laying out a lot of policy stances adopted by tea party groups.

Johnson doesn’t buy the theory that less money means the country is less secure.

“I don’t necessarily agree that by cutting money that we can’t in fact be smart and that we can’t in fact retain a really strong national defense,” Johnson said. “But a national defense as opposed to what seems to be a very strong offense.”

Tackling entitlements

The former New Mexico governor also has his eyes on tackling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Johnson suggested raising the retirement age and raising the income threshold subject to social security tax.

“A reduction perhaps of some benefits, not big here, just a slight reduction if you will,” he said. “And perhaps a means testing for all of that.”

He said Medicaid and Medicare should be “block granted” — giving states a block grant without mandates from the federal government about how to issue it.

Johnson is perhaps best known for his outspoken advocacy for legalizing marijuana and ending the war on drugs. This is atypical for a Republican, ever since Richard Nixon started the war on drugs, and Ronald Reagan ramped up the effort. And although the Iowa Democratic Party has the idea of decriminalizing marijuana in their party platform, few politicians, if any, seek action on the issue.

During the recession, debate began in some states to legalize and tax marijuana to boost government revenues.

“A to Z, I’m opposed to the drug war, A through Z,” Johnson explained. “Taxes would be part of it, yeah, that’s the T. [And we could] redirect the resources to real crime, as opposed to an arguably victimless crime.”

Like Paul and the tea party crowd, Johnson advocates scrapping entire departments to save the federal government money, such as the Department of Education.

It’s clear Johnson believes if he ran he’d have a chance at success. He points to the fact he was elected, then re-elected in New Mexico, where it’s a two-to-one ratio Democrats to Republicans.

“I’m a Republican, I remain a Republican,” he said. “But I’m flattered by statements that would say these are libertarian ideas. Libertarians don’t get elected to office and I got elected to office. And I’m saying this in the context that these ideas resonate with people when they’re actually implemented.”

Johnson said his experience as governor was built around a cost-benefit analysis for everything. It lead him to oppose the death penalty, not only because mistakes are sometimes made, but because with court proceedings for appeals it’s cheaper to lock someone up for life than to put them to death. He also privatized prisons in New Mexico.

He’s spoken to more than 400 groups in 32 states, including four trips to Iowa. Shortly after the interview in Ames, he left to speak with a tea party group in Mason City. He rode RAGRAI in 2010 and said he plans to ride it again this summer.

When asked about the reception he’s gotten, Johnson said it’s been really good, and if it wasn’t he wouldn’t be here right now.

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