Gary Johnson Basking in Outsider Status
Excluded from GOP process, he's found new life in a third party.
Gary Johnson hasn’t swamped voters in South Carolina with e-mail blasts, or inundated them with direct-mail attacking his opponents. And he certainly hasn’t sent out any robocalls.
Third party candidates typically can’t afford such strategies. But Gary Johnson is not the typical third party candidate, he’s mounting one of the most unusual political comebacks in recent memory.
Comebacks in politics are nothing new. But it’s the rare candidate who can engineer a comeback in the same election cycle.
Though his return most likely will not lead to him taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Johnson is back in the presidential race as the frontrunner for the nomination of the Libertarian Party.
Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico (1995-2003), originally ran as a candidate on the Republican ticket and struggled to raise funds and craft a consistent message. He invested his time almost entirely in New Hampshire, but had little to show for it in the polls after several months of campaigning. He wasn’t helped by being excluded from all but two of the GOP debates, even though he had poll numbers higher than either Jon Huntsman or Rick Santorum at the time.
Johnson is still puzzled as to why he was kept out and admitted the experience was frustratingly unfair.
“It’s not the America I grew up in,” he said. “It goes against everything I was taught.”
He still believes that if he had been allowed to participate, he would have been one of the candidates on the stage last night in North Charleston.
But, the exclusion could prove to be the proverbial blessing in disguise for Johnson. Convinced he would never get a fair shake as a Republican, Johnson declared himself a member of the Libertarian Party in December. Should he receive the nomination, his name will be on the ballot in all 50 states, an eventuality that was only pipe dream had he stayed with the GOP.
And while his party may have changed, his message hasn’t.
“It has always been about the message for me,” Johnson said. “I think that the majority of people in this country are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I don’t think that group is being represented by the eventual Republican nominee or President (Barack) Obama.”
As a Libertarian, Johnson must make an effort to distinguish himself from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whom he endorsed in 2008. He quickly rattles off the differences between the two:
- He is pro-choice.
- He supports marriage equality.
- He does not believe in putting a fence at the U.S.-Mexico border.
- He would treat Israel as an ally.
- He would reduce military spending by 43 percent.
- He would immediately cut $1.4 trillion from the budget compared to $1 trillion proposed by Paul.
But the issue that has gotten Johnson the most attention is his belief that marijuana should be legalized. He said the drug war has been a failure on multiple levels. It has incarcerated huge portions of the population for non-violent crimes while using up law enforcement resources that could be utilized more efficiently.
“Polls show that half of the public are in favor of legalizing marijuana and that’s with no politicians whatsoever agreeing with them,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those issues where voters are well ahead of the curve compared to politicians.”
Johnson believes that Paul will ultimately finish second in the GOP race. But once he yields the stage, Johnson worried that the Libertarian message would go with him. It’s Johnson’s view that the message be continued, which is one of the main reasons he changed parties. In the long run, it may be that Johnson is in fact the better messenger.
Where Paul can occasionally come off as a cranky grandfather in the debate setting and in his dealings with the media, Johnson is quick with a laugh and has a sharp sense of humor.
While the Libertarian message is first and foremost, one of the ancillary goals of Johnson’s candidacy is to point out the failings of the two-party system. He believes both parties are to blame for out-of-control spending and can’t muster something positive to say about either Obama or Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination.
“When Obama was elected he talked about how he was going to change Washington,” Johnson said. “He hasn’t. The system is still for sale.”
He did offer a compliment to Romney — of the back-handed variety.
“He’s really personable and charming,” Johnson said. “But I have no idea what he stands for. Other than that he’s great.”
Johnson is sympathetic to the two main movements upset with the status quo — The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.
“They both have it right,” Johnson said. “We have to slash spending and we have to stop putting the country up for sale.”
Johnson, who is a competitive tri-athlete at the age of 58, is sanguine about his electoral possibilities. A win for him would be to get the necessary poll numbers to merit a space on the debate stage with Obama and the GOP choice, which would be nothing, if not ironic, given his absence at the Republican debates.