Can Libertarian Gary Johnson Pick Up Where Ron Paul Left Off?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 4 2012 6:22 PM

The Libertarian (Ever) Hopeful

When Ron Paul fails, Gary Johnson will be waiting in the wings.

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When he was a Republican candidate, Johnson tried to carve out a space on the libertarian left wing of the party. The people who managed debates determined, through a process of their own design, that this wing did not actually exist. As an L.P. candidate, Johnson insists that he will make it harder for Obama to win another term. Johnson will campaign on the drug war, for example. Surely no one who voted for Obama on that issue could vote for him again.

“He’s certainly no better than Bush,” says Johnson. “Something I’ve argued since I’ve really stepped out on this issue is, the pusher, the seller of drugs is really misunderstood. The seller of drugs is somebody who was the user, who’s now thrust into the selling role because the person ahead of them got arrested, sent to jail. This is why I’ve espoused decriminalization. Imagine the thought process: It’s OK to possess it, it’s OK to use it, so now, with impunity, you can go out and say ‘hey, Joey, wanna buy some pot?’ ” To make his point, Johnson affects a raspy Ratso Rizzo voice. “Well, Joey goes to jail, and you get your pot. That doesn’t solve the problem. Obama doesn’t solve the problem by going after the suppliers.”

Johnson has to wrap up the meeting because he’s got an interview with the Washington Post. There’s a spike of interest in third-party candidates right now, in part because the Romney-Obama race is so dreadful and in part because of the “Field of Dreams” campaign of Americans Elect. The group, which has spent at least $23 million, is drifting toward nominating former Comptroller General David Walker on a fiscal austerity platform. This does not worry Johnson.

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“Americans Elect is kind of playing itself out,” he says. “As a candidate, as a declared candidate, you have to have 10,000 supporters from 10 states to win their nomination. Well, the cumulative support of all the candidates now is just below 10,000. I’ve seen that David Walker has 300 supporters, total. He needs 1,000 from 10 states and that needs to happen pronto. I don’t know. I’m just guessing that doesn’t happen. Anyway, he already has a candidate. Me!”

One more reason why people are talking to Johnson: They want to see what happens to the libertarians (small “L”) after Ron Paul fails to win the GOP nomination. Johnson wants to win his supporters over. He wants to win over Paul’s megadonor Peter Thiel. “We had a nice dinner.” It would help Johnson tremendously if he could get a super PAC-scale donor in his corner, as the Libertarians did in 1980, when their vice presidential candidate was David Koch. Yes, that David Koch, who later gave up on electoral politics.

“I can’t get in to see the Kochs,” says Johnson. “I don’t know when that’s gonna change.”

Is it a missed connection or a blow-off?

“It’s just a blow-off.”

What does he want to say to them?

“Well, the fact that they’ve been such activists—I mean, they’ve been terrific! The Cato Institute? That was the Koch brothers! I just want to say, ‘Thanks’! And, ‘Hello.’ ”

This is the only down note in our conversation. Before Johnson leaves, he points to the Public Policy Polling survey that suggests he’d be a factor if he wins in Vegas. He’s at 6 percent. Most of the support seems to come from Romney.

“I’m just jazzed about the 6 percent,” says Johnson. “Thinking that it goes higher. How am I at 6 percent, as a Libertarian, when I wasn’t even on the radar running as a Republican. Ninety-five percent of America doesn’t know who I am!” He corrects himself. “I guess it’s 94 percent.”

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