“For eight years,” former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson said with a wide grin on his face, “I was a libertarian governor disguised as a Republican!” Often dubbed the “next Ron Paul,” Johnson wears the libertarian (small “L”) label proudly, though in an interview with The Daily Caller he swore he was still a Republican.
“The Republican Party has treated me very well,” said Johnson on a recent visit to TheDC’s Washington headquarters. The line is probably one he’ll be repeating often, as it is widely speculated Johnson will run for president in 2012 on the Republican Party ticket. His visit, in fact, came just days after a profile of him ran in The New Republic that quoted one Johnson confidant as saying, “There’s no waiting or seeing. It’s a done deal.”
Johnson was clear from the very beginning of the interview, however, that because his organization – Our America — is a 50C(4), he couldn’t comment on a 2012 presidential bid. But hypothetically speaking? Without missing a beat Johnson said that hypothetically, if a libertarian-minded candidate like himself were to announce a presidential bid, it would probably be around February of 2011.
That said, Johnson has a lot of ground to cover if he expects to produce even a semi-serious challenge to possible Republican presidential contenders like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, not to mention President Obama.
Johnson’s political career to date has lasted exactly eight years – two consecutive terms as governor of New Mexico. And that, as Johnson pointed out, says something, considering the fact that New Mexico is a majority Democratic state by a ratio of 2 to 1.
But it wasn’t easy, said Johnson, who talked about how even the Republicans at the state level tried to grow the size of government. “I had to veto roughly 100 bills where the vote [in the State Legislature] was 117-0,” said Johnson, though without a trace of self pity. For Johnson, it rather seems like a badge of honor.
And after taking a hiatus from politics after his second term ended in 2003 to run marathons, bike through mountains, and climb Mt. Everest, 2012 just might be the opportune year for Johnson to take advantage of the GOP resurgence and Tea Party wave. Although when the Tea Party comes up in the conversation, Johnson has both positive and negative things to say.
“There is an awareness today that has never existed before in my lifetime,” said Johnson, when talking about the level of activism that has swept the country the last two years. But the adulation stopped there, as Johnson put his hands up in the air in frustration.
“There’s a disconnect between what they say and reality,” said Johnson emphatically. “When it comes to immigration and defense, they actually support an expansion of government!”
The statement seems surprising coming from a man who will probably depend on Tea Party support — which often overlaps with Ron Paul’s 2008 base — to garner enthusiasm for his candidacy. But then that’s Johnson-style political correctness at its finest. Call it unorthodox, but to Johnson, it’s just common sense.
And when the conversation turns to marijuana legalization, the Johnson common sense carries over. “When 52 percent says to 48 percent of their fellow Americans, ‘We think you belong behind bars because of your activity,’ that’s not a good law,” said Johnson, referring to one of the many polls done leading up to the vote on California’s Prop 19 – a measure that, if passed, would legalize the possession of marijuana.
Johnson, who stopped consuming alcohol 23 years ago, spoke freely about his past drug use. “I’ve smoked my share of marijuana,” he said unabashedly, before recounting one marijuana escapade in which he drove while high. According to Johnson, he may not have known where he was at the time, but he was still able to “drive within the lines.”
“Marijuana is a lot safer than alcohol anyway…and legalization is a giant step in the right direction.”
Only a “giant step”?
Johnson nodded. “The world would be a better place if all drugs were legalized over night.”
What is noteworthy about Johnson is that he does not hesitate to make blanket statements that most other presidential hopefuls would never utter within shouting distance of a newsroom, much less with a straight face to a reporter with a notepad.
But Johnson did it repeatedly.
“If everyone had a gun there would be less gun violence,” he said. And when it comes to immigration? Johnson’s solution is to make it easier for immigrants to get worker’s visas.
“Would Mexicans stand in line to get a worker’s visa if it was a moving line?” he asked in a way that would make anyone unsure of the answer squirm in their seat. “Yes, they would,” he said.
When asked if his family would support his presidential campaign, Johnson responded with almost surprising bluntness. “I divorced my wife after my second term was up. And then she died,” said Johnson who, although he is getting remarried soon (“she’s a cyclist, too”), still appears to be wearing a wedding wing.
”But yes,” he said, his two grown children were behind him 100 percent.
When asked about his thoughts on Sarah Palin, Johnson hesitated to even discuss the one-time presidential candidate. “Calling out my opponents isn’t my style,” he said at one point, noting that during his re-election campaign in 1998, he never once talked about or even ran an ad that mentioned his opponent by name.
Even so, when he verbally acts out two disastrous Palin interviews on the O’Reilly Factor, it’s clear he doesn’t take the conservative star too seriously. “I can’t believe Republicans would nominate her [in 2012],” said Johnson. “I can’t see her winning a general election.”
That again seems like an odd statement coming from someone who supports open borders and marijuana legalization, wants to slash Medicare and Medicaid, and oh yeah, will be vying for the Republican nomination. But maybe that’s where Johnson’s optimism comes in.
According to Johnson, times are changing. “[Sean] Hannity took some really cheap shots at me over marijuana nine years ago,” said Johnson. “Then just three months ago I was back on his show and he was totally different…there was a huge change.”
Hannity being slightly more accepting of a candidate who supports drug legalization may seem hardly worth celebration to most. To Johnson though, it’s one anecdote that reinforces his optimism about his long-shot candidacy. And the marathon-running, Mt. Everest -climbing (he “only feared for his life on the way down”) politician is not afraid of a tough fight.
When asked if he ever started a race he didn’t think he could finish, Johnson responded with a faint smile.