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

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May 4 2012 6:22 PM

The Libertarian (Ever) Hopeful

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

Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for President.
Gary Johnson.

Photo by Ron Hill Imagery/Gary Johnson.

Gary Johnson is late. He’s pretty happy about the reason: too many interviews on the schedule today. That was never a problem when he was running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Now that he’s the front-runner for the less-exclusive Libertarian Party nod, people want to talk to him.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

“We started out at Grover Norquist’s meeting,” says Johnson, putting down his iPad to join me at a Dupont circle coffee shop. Norquist’s meeting of conservatives is off the record, but attendees can confirm that they crossed the threshold. “I thought it was a really good reception. Part of being out there, campaigning, talking to people, is being able to read body language. And it was all good. Nobody was dozing off. Nobody was shaking their heads. They were actually shaking their head this way.” He nods vigorously.

We’re talking on the day that Newt Gingrich announced the end of his profound presidential bid, when the Republican Party, supposedly, was learning to love Mitt Romney. It’s a few days before Johnson will claim the Libertarian Party’s nomination, potentially becoming a spoiler for Romney. The heads really nodded this way? No heads shaking that way?

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“No, none, zero,” says Johnson. “I really believe I’m gonna take it from Obama rather than Romney. I joke, you know—maybe all those pot-smoking, marriage equality, get out of Afghanistan voters for Romney are going to switch to me. Then, boy, he’ll be in trouble!”

In its 36 years of fielding presidential candidates, the Libertarian Party has settled on two types. The first: obscure activists who hew to the Ayn Rand Bible. The second: semi-famous politicians who might, finally, give the party an electoral media breakthrough. In 2004, the party went that first route and nominated Michael Badnarik, an affable computer programmer and freelance Constitution teacher. In 2008, the party convinced itself that former Rep. Bob Barr, a drug warrior turned leave-the-kids-alone activist, could ride the jetstreams of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.

Badnarik got 0.3 percent of the vote. Barr got 0.4 percent.

Johnson makes Libertarians a little more hopeful. Party leaders had courted Johnson ever since 2000, when he was still governor of New Mexico, and nationally famous for his support of drugs decriminalization. In 2011, when Johnson started missing the cut for Republican debates, the party begged him to come over. “From the beginning,” recalls Johnson, “they were saying ‘If this doesn’t work out, we have a place for you.’ ”

On Friday night in Las Vegas, Johnson will join lesser known activists like R. Lee Wrights (slogan: “Stop All War”) and Roger Gary (slogan: “Rock Solid”) for a presidential debate. On Saturday, he expects to win the nomination and pick former California Judge Jim Gray as his running mate. He will give a victory speech, then focus on the states he thinks he can win.

“I think at this point there are a few libertarian states,” says Johnson. “New Mexico might actually be in play. That’s a possibility. Wyoming. Montana. Nevada. Alaska. I’m thinking in terms of electoral votes. Those are states where we might actually win a three-way race.”

This is what every third party candidate says. Why would 2012 be different?

“Well, if you go back to 2008, Obama was the messiah to a lot of people,” says Johnson “Now you’ve got 80 percent of people saying they’d vote for a third party candidate. Do I make a difference? I don’t know, I don’t know. But being on the ballot in all 50 states, being in the game—wow! At some point, collectively, the country has to say, is there anyone else in this race? And I hope the answer they hear is, ‘yes, Libertarian Gary Johnson.’ ”

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.

“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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