It's fitting that Gary Johnson made his Libertarian presidential campaign official at a Las Vegas casino. In the past, the Libertarians have favored philosophic purity over government experience, but this year they’re taking a gamble: that the former New Mexico governor can make them a legitimate alternative party. In an era of infinite political dysfunction, Johnson is rolling the dice with a brand of fiscal responsibility and social tolerance that could make him a real threat in November.
Johnson has been polling between 6 and 9 percent nationally, a number just large enough to cover most Obama-Romney spreads. His name is expected to appear on ballots in all 50 states, and unlike the president and Mitt Romney, Johnson will spend the next six months speaking freely in language unmolested by establishment advisers or influential special interests. As the predictable election trench war digs in, the unassuming New Mexican is taking on the distinct and alarming traits of a spoiler.
"The Libertarian candidate is going to be the only candidate talking about gun rights and gay rights in the same sentence, about slashing welfare spending and warfare spending," Gov. Johnson told The Daily Beast in Las Vegas this weekend.
He is making a clear play for independents, the mythical 40 percent of Americans who swear allegiance to no party and allegedly decide every major election. In a country where we have been trained to believe that the full history of Western political philosophy can be compressed into a Sean Hannity vs. Al Sharpton cage match, Johnson could be an attractive alternative for the disillusioned and disgusted. But to attain any influence, Johnson must clear not only the logistical hurdles of fundraising and organization, but also the perception that he's a wacko outsider, or worse, the second coming of Ross Perot.
"Mr. Johnson is likely to be a sideshow in the presidential contest," The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday. The paper said he holds "policy positions often considered outside mainstream political thought," while noting in the same paragraph that these include supporting gay marriage and legalizing marijuana. Considering that recent polls show support for those issues at 53 and 50 percent respectively, it was a confusing bit of punditry.
A fitness guru and competitive triathlete who has climbed the highest mountain peaks on four continents, including Mt. Everest, Johnson does not cut the stereotypical figure of a reefer-rolling, pistol-packing libertarian. Aside from a beaded Tanzanian bracelet he has worn on his right wrist since climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, there is nothing ostensibly counterculture about him. And contra the Journal's allegation, Johnson considers himself more in line with mainstream politics than either Obama or Romney.
"Position-wise," he said in Las Vegas, "I'm representative of the majority of Americans' views."
Certainly Johnson is the only national politician who can step in front of a microphone and declare, "I share the outrage of the Tea Party, but I also share the outrage of Occupy Wall Street." On civil liberties, drug laws, defense spending and foreign wars, he outflanks President Obama from the left. But with his views on entitlement spending, cutting government agencies and again on civil liberties, he nudges Romney from the right. On subjects ranging from farm subsidies to immigration reform and bank bailouts, Johnson's independence has given him the luxury of staying ahead of popular opinion on a wide array of issues.
His signature policy of legalizing and regulating marijuana would be a change in federal law he contends will solve everything from prison-overcrowding to urban gang violence to Mexico's long-term political stability.
It is "insane," he has said, "to arrest roughly 800,000 people a year for choosing to use a natural substance that is, by any reasonable objective standard, less harmful than alcohol, a drug that is advertised at every major sporting event."
With views like these, Johnson is not going to be the next American president. But he doesn't need to win this fall to seriously foul things up. If Johnson notches his support up to 10 percent, the question won't be if he alters the November outcome, but how.
Judging by his statements in Vegas, his campaign will be issue-based and will avoid the tired mantras of Obama-as-socialist or Romney-as-vulture-capitalist. When he talks about the president, Johnson gives voice to common liberal and moderate frustrations—spending, marriage equality, drug reform, and ending foreign wars.
"This is why [Obama] got elected, to lead in those areas that he so passionately and eloquently spoke to. But it didn't transpire," he said.
As for Romney, Johnson describes the former Massachusetts governor as "terrific," "cordial," and "very gracious." Nonetheless, Johnson said he "has no idea where he stands on any issue." Romney's rhetoric on spending is essentially meaningless. "He wants to balance the federal budget, wants to cut federal spending, but wants to raise military spending and keep Medicare intact. I don't see the mathematics in that."
Johnson's statements are being echoed by his shiny new volunteer consultant, Roger Stone Jr. In February, the veteran GOP operative called it quits with his party and switched his voter registration to Libertarian. "I didn't leave the party, the party left me," said the man with a tattoo of Richard Nixon's face on his back. Today's Republicans "talk the talk," on fiscal restraint, "but they don't really walk the walk." Stone pointed out that as governor of New Mexico, Johnson vetoed 750 bills, more than his fellow 49 governors combined over the same amount of time and turned a $326 million budget deficit into a $1 billion surplus.
Johnson can promote his Libertarian values in a positive light, but his future will be determined by disaffection with and defection from the two-party duopoly. "Historically, [Democrats] have stood up for civil liberties, but I don't think they've done so well at that lately," he told a debate crowd in Las Vegas. "Republicans historically are the party that has stood up for balancing the checkbook. I don't think they've done so well at that lately. I don't know if they've ever done well by that."
No matter the strength of this message, Johnson must hit a series of hard goals in order to be any kind of factor now or in the future. The first will be receiving matching federal election funds, which his campaign is expecting will be announced this week. Second, if he ultimately earns 5 percent of the general vote in November, the Libertarian Party will receive a federal cash injection worth several million dollars in 2016, making it a more formidable contender. Third, and most imminent and impactful, if Johnson achieves 15 percent approval in three successive polls this year, he will be included in the fall's Presidential Commission debates.
"But they have to include his name in the poll for him to get to 15 percent," Stone said. "Why Gallup keeps taking polls without his name is stupidity, elitist stupidity. If he was on the ballot in only 30 states, you could justify it. He is going to be on the ballot in 50 states."
But the biggest wild card for Johnson remains Ron Paul the Tea-Party-Libertarian-torch-bearer who has yet to end his own campaign for the Republican nomination. It remains to be seen what happens if and when Paul eventually concedes to Romney. Wealthy libertarian-minded donors and energetic young Paul devotees will need somewhere to pour their money and exuberance.
Johnson contends that he is a "very viable alternative," but will stop short of asking the Texas congressman for an endorsement. It's just not the way Gary Johnson does things.