He won't be on stage tonight, but the former New Mexico governor has questions and a zinger or two for his fellow candidates
When the GOP candidates debate tonight, long-shots like Georgia businessman Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum will be on stage answering questions. But even if Texas Gov. Rick Perry pulls out at the last minute to attend to the wildfires ravaging his state, leaving an empty microphone, debate sponsors NBC News and Politico won't make room for Gary Johnson, who served two terms as the governor of New Mexico. This despite the fact that a recent poll puts him even with some of the candidates who'll attend, even as he's been outspent by his competitors and almost completely ignored by the national media.
Would he bring anything worthwhile to the stage if he were allowed to participate? That's the question I put to him in a recent phone interview, asking what arguments he'd want to get across to voters and what he'd ask his fellow candidates if given the opportunity. His answers are the best indication we have of what, if anything, voters are missing out on due to his absence.
Afforded an opportunity to question Perry and Michele Bachmann, he'd press them to reveal whether they intend to balance the federal budget, and if so, over what period of time.
"More specifically, how would they treat Medicare, Medicaid, and military spending?" he said. "Because you cannot balance the budget without those three."
Johnson said he would submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013, and that he would veto expenditures that exceed revenues. "You could argue that they'd just override me," he said, "and I would argue that the resulting budget will be closer to being balanced than if you elect a president who is vowing to balance the budget over a 15 year period, which to me is code for 'I have no intention of balancing the budget.'"
As for the former governor of Massachusetts, he'd press him for details on any part of his platform. "I just haven't heard anything specific about anything from Mitt Romney," he said.
Noting that Herman Cain has been dissing politicians, he said he'd ask him why he launched a bid for the United States Senate, losing in the Republican primary, if he has such disdain for the vocation. "I maintain that good government was really easy. I don't think I'd have been able to pull it off without the business experience I had. But the difference between Cain and I is I actually got to govern, and it worked. I talked about how everything in New Mexico was going to be a cost benefit analysis, how it was going to be about common sense. I was going to put issues first, politics last. And that's my resume. I did just that. Unlike some of the other candidates, I'm still viewed favorably in my home state -- people wave to me with all five fingers, not just one."
Permitted to ask something of Ron Paul, he'd be curious to know how many lone no votes he cast in Congress. "The reason I'd ask that is to juxtapose my experience as governor," Johnson said. "This is unofficial, but I think I may have vetoed a hundred bills when the vote in the legislature was 117 to zero. And only two were overridden. It made a big difference when it came to billions of dollars in spending." He added: "Unlike Congressman Paul, who got to make his principled no vote and move on the next day, I had to defend my actions as the guy directly responsible for the legislation not going through -- and I managed to do it successfully and get re-elected in a state that was 2 to 1 Democrat. My experience shouts that you can veto this stuff, be principled, defend it, and that people recognize the value of what you're doing for the state."
Every candidate preps jocular zings before debate night. Johnson, who is proud of his accomplishments as an athlete, aimed his at former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. "This is tongue in cheek," he said, "But a lot is made of the fact that he rides his motorcycle everywhere. I'd ask how many miles he rides on his motorcycle every year. The tongue in cheek comparison would be that I may ride my bike pedaling as many miles as he rides his motorcycle with the throttle."
Image credit: Reuters