Sketch October 2012

Pipe Dreamer

Could Gary Johnson’s turn as a pro-legalization Libertarian swing the presidential election?
John Cuneo

Gary Johnson was standing a couple of blocks from Dupont Circle, on a corner festooned with rainbow-flag bunting—a location strategically selected to highlight his support of gay marriage. It was one of those claustrophobically swampy Washington, D.C., days, and a rotten smell wafted from the subway grate atop which Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president, was holding court. A tall man whose tight curls and potbelly gave him a Seussian air was trying to convert Johnson to Milton Friedman’s theory of negative income tax. A law student wanted to change Johnson’s mind about single-payer health care, which Johnson opposes. A Malian woman in an embroidered purple gown and headdress talked to Johnson about her country’s troubles, then asked to take a picture with him. Johnson, who is a better listener than the average politician, heard them all out, while his volunteers circulated petitions and distributed packets of rolling papers bearing his likeness. A stout blond blogger-activist in a bright-blue dress and pearls said Johnson could raise his profile through civil dis­obedience. “Get arrested,” she told him firmly. “Ralph’s mistake”—she was referring to Ralph Nader’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns for president—“was he didn’t get arrested.”

Johnson chuckled, putting one hand on his hip and scratching his head with the other. “I’ll bet if I took off my clothes right now and ran around the circle, I could get arrested,” he said, “but I don’t think it would do me much good.”

Attracting attention may be the chief challenge facing Johnson, a popular 1990s-era governor of New Mexico who now finds himself a political after­thought. He ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, but was excluded from almost all the debates, and dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. You may remember his big moment, during one debate he did attend, a September 2011 Fox News forum in which he deadpanned: “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready projects than this president.” It was not the sort of line that convinces anyone you are a Serious Candidate, but Johnson maintains that he scored a victory. “I couldn’t have done better!” he told me over lunch the day after his Dupont Circle rally. “I was the most Googled name on the planet for two days afterward!”

Having since left the GOP for the Libertarian Party—that loose, 40-year-old coalition of perpetually quarreling anti-statists and isolationists, Ayn Randians and Hayekians, goldbugs and black-helicopter­-fixated privacy fanatics—Johnson hopes to fashion a new voting bloc. He is more socially liberal than Obama, more fiscally conservative than Mitt Romney, and less interventionist than either on foreign affairs. He believes that combination leaves him well-positioned to unite liberals disappointed with Obama, conservatives distrustful of Romney, and the eccentric youth movement galvanized by Ron Paul. (Johnson agrees with Paul on most issues, but he is pro-choice whereas Paul is pro-life, and he lacks Paul’s obsession with the Fed. Unlike Paul, he doesn’t come across as an old-school John Bircher in an ill-fitting suit.) Johnson has adopted the slogan “You Are Libertarian,” based on his contention that millions of Americans are already libertarians at heart, even if they don’t vote that way. The vaguely accusatory phrasing also suggests that he is urging people on a journey of self-discovery: you are libertarian, deep down, whether you admit it or not.

Johnson’s belief in his quixotic project has precedent: his experience backing drug legalization. He has been a vocal advocate since 1999, when, early in his second term as governor, he declared the drug war an expensive failure. Though New Mexico was by then accustomed to his unorthodox leadership style—he vetoed hundreds of spending bills and periodically left town to participate in grueling Ironman triathlons—his announcement came as a shock, and his approval rating quickly plummeted 30 points. By the time he left office in 2003, though, it had largely rebounded. His old supporters hadn’t come around; rather, he’d gained different ones—young people and liberals who had come to see him in a newly progressive light.

Being pro-pot made Johnson an outcast in the Republican Party but also proved, to him anyway, that he can move politics in unconventional directions on the strength of his convictions. With an eye toward again wooing young and liberal voters, Johnson has made drug policy a center­piece of his current campaign: In an ad that he hopes to air in select states (if he can raise the money), he calls attention to President Obama’s youthful pot habits. “What’s up, Mr. President?,” Johnson says in a voice-over. “It’s okay for you to do it, but everybody else should be arrested and go to jail?”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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