Sketch October 2012

Pipe Dreamer

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

Just about every third-party candidate peddles a version of the same basic spiel about the need for alternatives to a numbingly homogenous two-party political culture. So does Johnson. But his quest also contains an unmistakable element of because-it’s-there thrill-seeking. (The man once climbed Mount Everest with a leg still broken from skiing.) “Life needs to be an adventure,” he told me. And: “I’m doing this for myself.” His pre-campaign life is pleasant enough to go back to—he has a fiancée, whom he met a few years ago on a bike ride; various business ventures (though a recent attempt to bring plasma-­torch trash disposal to the United States failed); and a home, a tin-roofed house on 25 wooded acres near Taos, which he and a crew of friends built after a Hawaiian para­gliding accident temporarily took him off the extreme-sports circuit. (Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a neighbor. “He invited me over for dinner, but I had about 15 people coming over to my house, so I had to decline,” Johnson told me. He hopes they can reschedule; he’d like to talk to Rumsfeld about downsizing the military.)

Third-party candidates also like to say, however implausibly, that they are running to win. Here again, Johnson plays to type. He says his candidacy hangs on getting into the October presidential debates. To qualify, a candidate must hit 15 percent in five national polls, a number Johnson claims is in reach. (Most major polls have not included Johnson in their surveys, but one national poll taken in July gave him about 5 percent of the vote.) Even if he meets this requirement, however, he worries that the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is controlled by the two major parties, might do to him what the various networks hosting primary debates did last year. When he met the polling prerequisites, he says, some networks suddenly said the benchmarks had changed, but failed to announce new ones; others simply wouldn’t return his campaign’s calls.

At 59, Johnson is still young by presidential standards, and he doesn’t rule out running again in four years if this campaign doesn’t take him to the White House. For now, more plausible than a win is a scenario in which he acts as a spoiler. Polls over the summer showed Johnson doing particularly well in libertarian-­friendly swing states such as Colorado (7 percent), Arizona (9 percent), and New Mexico (13 percent). Third-party candidates tend to fare better in polls than they do on Election Day, but if Johnson can win even a sliver of these votes, it could be enough to tip the outcome.

Johnson dismisses such talk. He points to polling that has him siphoning roughly equal numbers of votes from Obama and Romney. He also maintains that it is a myth that Ralph Nader spoiled 2000 for Al Gore and Ross Perot spoiled 1992 for George H. W. Bush. “That’s just been so accepted, but it’s not true,” Johnson said. “Perot took from both sides, and then he took from a group in the middle that wouldn’t have ordinarily voted.”

In any case, if Johnson did earn enough votes that the loser singled him out for blame, he would be fine with that. “I’m not going to play a spoiler role, but if I get labeled as playing a spoiler role, that would be terrific also,” he said, a smirk lighting up his bright-blue eyes. “That would direct a lot of attention.”

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

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