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‘Next Ron Paul’ Bids for Libertarian Support

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/02/gjohnson-480x328.jpgGary Johnson (left) is introduced by Nick Gillespie on Tuesday night. (Photo by David Weigel)

The Tuesday night meet-and-greet with former Gov. Gary Johnson (R-N.M.) was supposed to draw a bigger crowd. More than 10 people who’d RSVP’d for the event at Reason magazine’s Washington, D.C. offices had begged off, on account of the fresh snow that had started to build on the drifts piled high for nearly a week. That gave the few dozen attendees time to shake off the snow and sample the Whole Foods catering and open bar as they chatted with the affable Johnson. It also gave Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com, an opening for a joke.

“Just so you know, Gary is already having an effect,” said Gillespie, bringing a microphone to members of the crowd who were asking questions. “The federal government has announced it’s closing tomorrow. So if you stay here all week, we might balance the budget.”

[GOP1]Johnson, dressed in a blue business suit and standing behind a logo-less podium, chuckled at the gallows humor. The crowd of libertarian activists and a few journalists laughed along. Johnson’s fans included staffers at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the libertarian think tank that’s planning lawsuits against NASA over global warming science, and the Marijuana Policy Project, whose 15th anniversary gala Johnson had spoken at last month. His short presentation and Q&A, a variation of a presentation he’s giving all over the country, rolled out the new three-point economic plan of his Our America organization: deep spending cuts (including cuts to entitlement programs), a flat tax, and less federal regulation of business and immigration.

But what could Johnson do that Tea Party groups and D.C. conservatives weren’t doing already?

“Obviously, he’s going to run for president in a couple years,” said Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economics professor who’s helping out Our America and who came to D.C. to participate in the Q&A. “So that’s one thing that differentiates this from some of the groups that are just putting out statements.”

Since launching Our America late last year, Johnson has been admirably blunt about his intentions. He won’t announce anything yet, but he’s seen what it takes to mount a libertarian-leaning Republican presidential bid, and he’s laying the groundwork to do so. He’s “showing up to speak to whoever asks me,” he says, which means he’s spending much of the most snowy week in 111 years of Washington, D.C.’s history doing media interviews and talking to libertarian groups. In two weeks, he’ll be back to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. And on paper, Johnson is a more spotlight-ready libertarian hero than Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), famous more for his personal lobbying for marijuana legalization (it’s one of Our America’s agenda items) than for a return to the gold standard.

“Right now, we’re where we’d thought I’d be a year from now,” said Johnson in the Q&A. “On the one hand, that’s bad, because it tells you what a state this country is in. Things are worse than we’d thought they’d be. But you’ve also got an energy out there and a desire for something new.”

The effect of the sped-up schedule was on display Tuesday night. Johnson knocked some questions out of the park, arguing that he’d helped change the way voters in New Mexico thought about marijuana after he controversially came out for legalizing and taxing the drug. “When I announced that, my approval rating fell from 58 percent to 28 percent,” he said. “I went all over the state explaining my position. When I left office, my approval rating was 58 percent.” But he responded more generally to other questions, letting Miron flesh out some of his answers. When Reason senior editor Katherine Mangu-Ward asked what Johnson thought of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) alternative budget, a flashpoint for debate among D.C.’s liberals and conservatives, the governor threw up his hands.

“Actually,” said Johnson. “I’m not familiar with it at all.”

“Do you think that it’ll pass, then?” joked Gillespie.

In other answers, Johnson revealed economic policy stances in line with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party, but social stances more popular with the left. He told reporters that he supported the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and supported “gay unions,” but not gay marriage. He’s pro-choice “up to the point of viability.” On a day that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other conservatives joked that the heavy snow was disproving global warming, Johnson only cricitized environmentalists for being heavy-handed.

“For argument’s sake,” said Johnson, “global warming is happening, it’s man-caused. That given, I think the effects of it are grossly exaggerated and I think the amount of money we’re looking to spend on it is grossly, grossly misguided.”

Our America is a 501(c)3 non-profit group, not a PAC like the ones chaired by Mitt Romney or Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.), and not a 527 like Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions, even though it shares office space with Johnson’s political strategist’s firm. So far, it’s a vehicle for Johnson to tour the country and put his ideas in one place, rather than a way to build his national standing by giving money to Republican candidates. That didn’t prevent him from taking a swipe at the people he might debate if he entered the 2012 race.

“Without exception,” Johnson told TWI, “the current presidential candidates — if you took the 10 or so likely candidates — if you put a piece of cardboard up over their likenesses, if you disguised their voices, you wouldn’t know which is which.”

He poured some cold water on the idea that the GOP had proven itself ready to run the country again, knocking the party for opposing Medicare cuts as a tactic in the debate over health care reform. “It would be a mistake to take Scott Brown’s election for a mandate for Republicans,” he told TWI. “I think people are so angry at everyone in office that they’re willing to vote anyone out.” And he criticized Republicans for supporting the continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (“I don’t think any of them could explain why we’re there”) and not coming out against torture.

Nonetheless, he ruled out a third-party bid. “I’m a Republican and I’m going to stay a Republican,” he told TWI.

Johnson also criticized Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), his successor back home, on the grounds that he’d added more than 4500 jobs to the state payroll after Johnson cut 1000.

“I’d argue that there’s no area of government that’s improved because of these 4500 stones he threw into the machine,” said Johnson. “And that’s just the ‘E.’ I can go A to Z if you. He bought himself a jet — that’s the ‘J.’ He bought himself a train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe — that’s the ‘T.’”

That sort of political point-scoring was a factor missing from Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, a long-shot effort that most libertarians supported — many with reservations — despite being frustrated by the candidate’s lack of commitment to a grueling campaign schedule. Paul had blanched at skipping work in Congress, leading him to schedule fewer campaign events. That’s a problem that the independently wealthy Johnson — he sold his construction company 11 years ago — doesn’t have. His job, he explained, is “getting out there.”

“I talked to the staff of Ron Paul’s New Hampshire operation,” said Ronald Nielson, the president and CEO of NSON Opinion Research, who worked on Johnson’s 1994 bid for governor and has returned to help him work on Our America. “He didn’t really go there. You know, he’d go once in a while, but it wasn’t a really organized effort. They told me that they’d organize events, and he’d cancel. They’d organize trips, and he’d cancel. They’d organize four events and he’d show up for one of them. I don’t know what that was about, but that’s not what we’re doing.”

As the Reason event wound down, Johnson’s listeners moved closer to the open bar and assessed his performance. He needed some polish on economic issues. He needed to transfer the passion he had on ending the war on drugs to other topics. How, they wondered, would he compete with other Republicans? Talking with TWI, Johnson suggested that he was on his way.

“The support that I’ve found surprising is sitting down with what would be described as right-wing Christian Republicans and finding support,” said Johnson. “That’s been a surprise.”

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