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America’s third way

In Gary Johnson, the Libertarian party has its most credible presidential candidate yet. But the deck is still stacked against him

America's third way
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For Americans who can’t stand Barack Obama but don’t want to vote for Mitt Romney, November’s presidential elections look bleak. There are other candidates, however, none more obvious than Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and the Libertarian party nominee. A greying triathlete who once climbed Mount Everest, he may not have a realistic chance of reaching the White House. But he is a politician to be reckoned with, especially since so many Americans are grumbling about the Washington status quo. 

As a Libertarian, Johnson favours essentially open immigration. He also wants lower taxes and less state spending than even the vast majority of Republicans. He tells me that the ‘fiscal blueprint’ set out by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, which Republicans say will address the nation’s debt crisis and Democrats insist will eviscerate the social safety net, is ‘much ado about nothing’.

The Libertarian party has been labouring in obscurity since 1971, when it was founded by disgruntled Republicans, effusive Ayn Rand disciples and individualists of all stripes. Libertarians have won a handful of state legislative seats but never more than 1.1 per cent of the presidential vote. That was in 1980, when the party sold its platform as ‘low-tax liberalism’. Most Americans preferred the low-tax conservatism of Ronald Reagan.

But the American political landscape is shifting. Johnson is adamant that his freedom-first philosophy is a bracing alternative to the staid major party values. ‘I’m the only candidate who doesn’t want to bomb Iran,’ he says. ‘Or who would get out of Afghanistan tomorrow. Or who would end the war on drugs. Or who supports gay marriage as a federal constitutional principle. A lot of Democrats aren’t fiscally responsible. A lot of Republicans aren’t socially tolerant.’

It is those fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters, many of them independents, who represent Johnson’s best opportunity for a Libertarian breakthrough. In one poll conducted by a Democratic firm, Johnson received 7 per cent of the vote nationally. He has achieved similar results in surveys taken in Arizona and Colorado, both states that will help determine the presidential outcome.

Johnson is, as he says, more anti-war than either of the major candidates, though he’s no pacifist. While he supports deep cuts in the military budget — he has previously said he would bring defence spending back to 2003 levels, which would involve reducing it by 43 per cent — he does support some humanitarian interventions. One would be the mission to help capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, in Uganda. In war-weary America, his relative doveishness could appeal.

Yet the deck is stacked against minor political parties in the United States. They frequently spend all their campaign money trying to satisfy a byzantine patchwork of state-by-state ballot access laws rigged by the Republicans and Democrats. By the time they have qualified, there is little left for the campaign. Third parties are generally excluded from the televised debates, especially after independent presidential ­candidate Ross Perot performed well in them in 1992.

Gary Johnson, however, isn’t the usual third-party candidate. ‘I have more executive experience in government than Obama and Romney combined,’ he says. And it’s true: Johnson served two full terms as governor of New Mexico, when he was still a Republican. He slashed state spending and balanced the budget without raising taxes. In fact, he cut taxes 14 times. ‘I may have used my veto more than the other 49 governors combined,’ Johnson boasts, noting the 750 bills he refused to let become law.

Johnson started his 2012 presidential campaign as a Republican. But he couldn’t get himself invited to most debates, a real indignity for a former governor, especially since a radio chat-show host and chief executive of a middle-sized pizza company, Herman Cain, was on the dais for every one of them. Johnson’s only memorable moment at the debates was when he quipped that his neighbour’s defecating dog had created more ‘shovel-ready’ projects than the president’s stimulus programme, and even that was overshadowed by a controversy over whether he had lifted the joke from radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

Thus Johnson fled the Republicans for the freer pastures of the Libertarian party. He became their presidential nominee on the first ballot — a first for that fractious bunch. ‘People talk about changing the Republican party,’ Johnson says, in reference to the supporters of Grand Old Party’s perennial ‘outsider’ candidate, Ron Paul. ‘The Libertarian party doesn’t need to be changed. It’s fine as it is.’

In other ways, Johnson is a stereotypical Libertarian. The party’s trenchant criticisms of the US drug war have given it a reputation for being obsessed with narcotics legalisation. Here the former governor plays to type. Johnson is extremely open about his own drug use — ‘I never exhaled,’ he cheerfully told the New Republic. He even admitted to the Weekly Standard that he had smoked marijuana for medicinal purposes from 2005 to 2008 after fracturing a vertebra in a paragliding accident.

The Libertarian Party’s critics — and not a few of its supporters — seek to keep it marginalised, the political equivalent of the Woodstock festival. Johnson is undaunted. He allows himself to fantasise about leading the free world. ‘Maybe we could get some support [on legislation] from Republicans who are serious about their fiscal conservatism and Democrats who are serious about civil liberties… build ­coalitions,’ he says. ‘Imagine a Libertarian president,’ he adds, almost as if he cannot imagine it himself. Certainly, he is the most qualified person his party has ever chosen for the job. That doesn’t necessarily make him any more likely to get it. But a man can dream.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.