The First Serious Candidate of 2012?

Unpublished update: I wrote part of this article on Friday, with Ron Paul still “thinking.” Then boom, Monday he gets in. So some of this should be taken with that in mind–I’ve edited it since, but in my mind Paul is just “getting” in, so I haven’t completely made the transition. So I must say something I would have never said in 2008: Paulistas, I apologize.

It’s official: Gary Johnson will be seeking the Republican nomination in the 2012 primaries.

Gary who?

Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico. It’s alright if you don’t remember him–his term ended in 2003. You may recall, though, a governor of a smaller western state being one of the highest ranking Republicans (and indeed, official of either party) to call for the decriminalization of marijuana. Yeah, that was him. So why am I getting excited over a candidate that would seem, at face value, to be little more than a historical footnote?

Well, for starters, I see Johnson as the first serious candidate to officially enter the race. Now now, I know what you’re thinking–don’t Tpaw, Mittens, even the Donald have a better chance at this point? Perhaps, but as you’ll hear me belabor over the next six months while I continue to write on the ebb and flow of the race, because, hey, even an unpaid blogger seeks good copy, things change. Nobody could beat George H.W. Bush in the early part of 1991. Nobody.

But when I say serious, I don’t mean an attitude of a candidate that’s “in it to win it.” What I mean is a candidate that is serious about their ideology and has put forth or presents real solutions to the problems facing America. Newt may have once stood on the edge of being that candidate, but nowadays, he’s more “anti” than anything else. Romney, well, we’ve already discussed Romney’s issues–in that there are really few he hasn’t flipped or flopped on. Huckabee, too, is largely a Tea Party cheerleader these days. And although I’ll admit that I’m anxiously awaiting Pawlenty’s alternative budget, right now, he seems more focused on shaking the perception that he’s just too dull to take on the One.

Now Ron Paul is, in my mind, a serious candidate. His philosophy is well known, and laid out there. However, he’s going to largely be a retread of his 2008 campaign. Not because he’s a re-run, but that’s because who Ron Paul is–he’s largely a backbencher who has never strayed from his core values. Ron Paul in 1988 is not far removed from Ron Paul in 2012, so I don’t really need to discuss him here. You can find that all over the place, not least of which is his core of fanatic supporters online. I will also say this: those same believers seem to be growing in number. His message is more salient than ever.

But Gary Johnson, he’s new. So what do we need to know about him? Well, as Governor, he was a true tax and spending cutter. In his first term, he used the veto on nearly HALF of the legislation that came to his desk, and was not afraid to use the line item veto on the rest. However, as is often thrown at fiscal conservatives, he is not simply a naysayer. He pushed very hard for school vouchers, and as previously mentioned, he pushed for the legalization of marijuana. Not medicinal marijuana, mind you, but full bore legalization. What was intriguing about this is he framed not only in terms of liberty but also in terms of government being more effective, pointing out that over half of spending on police and courts go towards drug offenders (though I’ll admit I need to read more about that). Also, perhaps surprisingly for a government that earned a rep as a small government type, he earned high marks for his hands-on involvement during the Cerro Grande Fires of 2000. He coordinated the various state and federal agencies, was constantly on-site, and at one point even helped put out a lawn fire with his feet. His FEET.

In my view, this makes Johnson something very different from Ron Paul. Its indisputable that Ron Paul has been one of the preeminent voices for limited and government in the halls of Congress. While there, though, he’s honestly had only a limited impact on the dialogue.  The party was becoming more and more neoconservative during his most recent run in Congress, and his pleas on foreign policy and fiscal conservatism too often fell on deaf ears. He has a fanatical cadre of supporters that dates back to the 80s, and that’s important in the party overall, but in Congress, he’s viewed as being part of the fringe. Paul, to my knowledge, has had no major legislation passed–he’s mostly known as a bombthrower. He’s introduced PLENTY of legislation, but I’m having trouble finding one that became law. I’m not sure he’s EVER passed a bill.  (Note: he did carry a bill resembling the Gold Bullion Act of 1985 several times, but it was only passed and sign AFTER he left Congress in 1985). Indeed, he’s known as Dr. No by the media for often being that little 1 “nay” against 434 “yeas. Johnson would seem to have a better record of actually putting ideals into policy.

That said, Johnson’s biggest obstacle to becoming a contender is indeed Ron Paul himself. For all the mockery that occured during the campaign and since, Ron Paul made quite a splash. Yes, he did hang out in the back of the pack for most of the race, but he beat out Rudy Guiliani, the former front runner, in a few early states, and managed to earn delegates through a number of strong showings in caucus states. Additionally, his campaign earned more than $28 million. Tellingly, many of his supporters continued to show up to vote after his campaign was suspended in the wake of McCain being the presumptive nominee.What alot of mainstream Republicans failed to pick up on, though, is that Paul’s group of backers were fundamentally a coalition. Not a large coalition, mind you, but there were supporters from very distinct political traditions involved in the campaign. Some were big L Libertarians who were veterans of his 1988 campaign (read: Libertarian Party members), Constitution Party members (both primarily in states with open primary laws), paleoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and Republican Liberty Coalition members. This was due to Paul’s intriguing mix of being a staunch non-interventionist, a true small government guy, and profoundly pro-life. I think this was highlighted here in Virginia by the fact that alot of Bob Marshall people were Ron Paul people and vice versa during the 2008 Senate race. I think its also telling that Ron Paul has gone from “he who shall not be spoken of” by mainstream Republicans turned off by his opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan to something of a folk hero amongst the Tea Party whose ideas are regularly utilized, if perhaps begrudgingly. (It should be noted that Johnson is also anti-interventionist and is beating the drum, as is Paul’s Senator Son Rand, to do something about defense spending)

So many of these people would seem to line up with Johnson as well, right? Well, that’s part of the issue. One, Johnson is going to have to fight with Paul to build a coalition strong enough to challenge the top tier candidates (many of whom were already softened up by Paul in 2008). It’s intriguing, though, that we are entering a primary season that features two candidates that can genuinely be labeled as coming from the libertarian wing of the party. But two, Johnson may have trouble connecting with some of those same potential coalition members. For starters, Johnson has made no bones about being pro-choice. Intriguingly, though, the Right to Life committee endorsed him on the basis of outlawing partial birth abortion and cutting government funding for the practice. Still, Johnson probably just wouldn’t be willing to sign on to something like, say, Paul’s Sanctity of Life Act, which would define life as beginning at conception and return all abortion regulation to the states. Johnson would likely agree with the federalist perspective that abortion simply isn’t the domain of the feds, but I doubt he’d want such a wide reaching definition either. Additionally, Johnson has alternated between saying that he is simply against federal involvement in the issue of gay marriage and being openly supportive of gay civil unions. For my money, it seems that many Ron Paul supporters, particularly those closely aligned towards the paleoconservative viewpoint, oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment but would gladly restrict gay marriage and civil unions in their home states (and indeed, back the Defense of Marriage Amendment because it allows a state to reject partnerships in other states). Johnson will have to explain exactly what he means before they settle on him versus Paul. On both of these issues, it would seem semantics are the trickiest part, but if we learned anything from Roe v. Wade, its that semantics matter, and indeed, are probably the biggest empowering factor behind judicial overreach. That, however, could be a post on its own.

Johnson’s biggest issue: Pot. This goes to two dimensions: the policy and the personal. I’ll first deal with the policy aspect, which should prevail, but sadly, for Johnson and other serious candidates, will take a back seat to the personal in the eyes of the media. At any rate, we already touched on Johnson’s support for marijuana legalization. As it appears, Johnson would push for a blanket policy legalizing marijuana across the country. He views it as fundamentally an issue of personal responsibility and liberty. Additionally, he sees a “drug war” as simply something the government should not be involved in. For his part, Ron Paul has repeatedly sponsored legislation giving states the right to allow medical marijuana and to grow industrial hemp. He’s also sponsored legislation ending federal penalties on up to 100 grams of the drug. However, much of his language has been couched in that of federalism and states rights, leaving the door open for, once federal drug laws are off the books, states to re-institute stringent regulation at their own level. Johnson, on the other hand, would seem to support marijuana having the same legal status across the country, though again, it would ultimately be the state’s decision. Again, a subtle but important difference. Reading his policy on drugs, he seems to agree that states should have the right to decide, but given his history in New Mexico and the fact that , I feel he would side with state level campaigners to keep it legal in each state. I don’t know about Dr. Paul–as President, he’d probably stay out of the issue.  I feel that there are many paleoconservatives who count themselves as federalists but would never support drug legalization in their state–indeed, some probably would even push for state level prohibition of alcohol. Some tea party activists have booed Johnson at rallies he’s been at for his clear stance on legalization, even after he put things in terms of the cost of the drug war. They agree that the federal government should not be involved under the provisions of the Constitution, but that if it was up to the states, they’d want it outlawed in their state. I think this will ultimately be an issue of emphasis. Ron Paul will just say give it to the states–Gary Johnson will say, give it to the states, but if they’re smart, they’ll legalize it for x, y and z reasons.

Now onto the personal. Gary Johnson makes no bones about it–he’s smoked pot. Lots of it. Let’s get real here for a second: if you believe that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are the only people to ever get elected after smoking pot, you’re naive. They’re the only candidates that were either upfront about it or, like everything else dealing with the intersection of politics and the personal, one of their erstwhile allies decided they hated them enough to squeal. This is nothing new. However, on the Republican side, it could still be an issue. Since the Reagan administration, the party has seemed to have a firmly anti-drug mindset. Indeed, its been suggested that Bush’s popular vote loss in 2000 was partially due to social conservatives staying home after it was revealed in the 11th hour that he had been arrested for a DUI. How will Republicans take a candidate that is open about his past drug use? I don’t think that Republicans are inherently more judgmental, but there’s a certain mindset that, once its known they did drugs, a candidate just can’t be trusted. However, that’s just part of the calculation for Johnson. Johnson has also been clear that he used medical marijuana between 2005 and 2008 to help control pain stemming from a paragliding accident. I think this fundamentally goes to the heart of the problem here. I will admit right here, right now, that I am in favor at least of medicinal marijuana. As a former cancer patient, I believe that its abilities in helping to deal with the pain, anxiety and depression of a massive trauma such as cancer or an accident is proven. This could cost me future political support, but *shrug*. I’m a bit more on the fence with regards to recreational use, but let’s get real here–the data simply is not there to support marijuana as any more harmful on the long haul than the use of alcohol, which is currently legal if not highly regulated. If you can show me compelling evidence that shows marijuana is harmful or is truly a gateway drug that nearly inevitably leads to the use of more harmful drugs in a more compelling way than alcohol or tobacco, or even caffeine, please share. I feel that once an individual gets the idea of altering their state of mind via substances, they’re going to explore the idea. However, I don’t see where marijuana does this more than any other abused recreational substance, be it nicotine or alcohol. But again, on that aspect of the issue, I’m open. With medicinal marijuana, though, I think the time is now to reclassify it as a Schedule II drug, susceptible to the same regulations and regimes that guide the use of far more dangerous substances like oxycontin and hydrocodone.

All that said, how will the GOP treat a medical marijuana patient? Will it be suggested that he simply cannot lead after ingesting the devil’s weed? He seemed to do ok in New Mexico after years of recreational use. Is it really any different from Phil Crane and other pols battles with alcoholism? At least Johnson stopped, to the best of our knowledge, during his years in power. So is the GOP perhaps ready for the suggestion that a world with freer access to marijuana may not be the worst thing imaginable? In this way, I think it is doubly important that Johnson not fall to the temptation of running a single issue campaign. If the GOP sees a medical marijuana patient running a serious race talking about policy alternatives and not simply running on personality and glittering generalities, I think it bodes well for the GOP in the future.

All that said, I believe Johnson has an uphill battle. His appeal may be limited for certain parts of the Paul coalition who simply cannot embrace libertarianism in a way that Johnson does. For example, he’s clearly stated that he does not go to church regularly, and told Salon that “you won’t find me invoking God in anything I do.” It’s clear from the outset: Johnson may hold many of the same libertarian views as Dr. Paul, but they come from a fundamentally different worldview than Dr. Paul, or at least some of the good doctor’s core supporters. Still, with a tag team of Paul, the tireless legislative liberty advocate, and Johnson, the successful libertarian minded executive, we may very well be reaching the high tide of the liberty movement within the Republican Party.

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  1. May 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I was a strong Paul supporter back in 2008 (going so far as to manage one of his official presidential campaign offices). But, despite agreeing with him on many issues, there were always a few things that bothered me. In particular, his view that because evolutionary science contradicts a literal interpretation of the bible, then evolutionary science is flawed. Any candidate who claims to still believes in a literal interpretation of the bible, despite the mountains of scientific evidence contradicting it, is either purposefully lying to score political points or completely ignorant of modern scientific knowledge. Either reason is sufficient to make them unworthy of holding a major political office.

    To the best of my knowledge, Gary Johnson doesn’t hold to a strictly literal interpretation of the bible. He also makes a better candidate than Paul for a host of other reasons including experience as a multi-million dollar business owner, public service in an executive role, and better appeal to the “hair cut” voters.

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