A Man Who Deserves To Be Viable in 2012

by Conor Friedersdorf

Imagine a successful two-term Republican governor with a credible small government record, a demonstrated commitment to civil liberties, skepticism about foreign wars, a longstanding determination to right America's fiscal ship, evidence of competent management skills in the public and private sectors, and an utter lack of ugly populist rhetoric during the whole of his substantial time in public life. You'd think he'd be a God send for tea partiers and civil libertarians, a possibility to win the GOP nomination in 2012, and an appealing alternative for those of us who think that given a sane alternative Barack Obama doesn't deserve another term.

That attractive, reality-based Republican exists! His name is Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico. Says Niall Stanage in a Salon.com profile:

Aside from his low name-recognition, he has no discernible power base. After eight years on the job in Santa Fe, he was term-limited out of the governorship at the end of 2002 and stepped back from public life thereafter. Fundraising will be arduous. And his ambitions are the object of outright scorn from the Washington establishment. 

"His chances are zero," political analyst Stu Rothenberg says via e-mail. "I'd say that they are less than zero, if there was such a thing. I'd expect his impact to be nonexistent."

Tell a savvy politico that you'd love to see former Governor Johnson win the Republican nomination and they'll tell you the same thing, usually in a condescending tone: he doesn't have a chance. It's a dynamic I might accept if the GOP field were filled with excellent options. As things are, however, there's talk of Mitt Romney reappearing in a guise that has yet to be determined, a new xenophobic version of Newt Gingrich advancing the notion that Saudi Arabia and its treatment of religious freedom should inform attitudes toward religious freedom in America, and Sarah Palin, whose crowning achievement as governor of Alaska was... well, never mind that, she's a cultural phenom and really connects with the base!!

Here's the thing about politicians and their initial rise to national attention: it's often a phenomenon driven by elites. Sometimes promising young leaders are given a speaking slot at a political convention, like Barack Obama. Other times it's taste-makers in coastal media who launch a pol from obscurity: take Bill Kristol's role in the rise of Sarah Palin, who he championed after meeting her on a luxury cruise to Alaska. There isn't anything wrong with elites alerting the wider public to a deserving candidate. What I object to are the judgments about who is worthy of that boost.

The GOP establishment gave us George W. Bush as a fait accompli during the 2000 primary season, and taste-makers in the conservative movement remain proud of having launched Sarah Palin's career in national politics. Either the elites on the right should start alerting us to worthier leaders, or else the GOP rank-and-file should start looking elsewhere for inspiration. (Being a Gary Johnson partisan, I'd suggest Reason magazine, where writers seem more interested in advancing the careers of people who share their professed beliefs, as opposed to helping ciphers who'll advance their agenda out of a combination of policy ignorance, malleability, and personal indebtedness.) At the moment, the best way to raise your profile in the GOP is to denounce the mosque and community center being planned a few blocks from Ground Zero. Is that the incentive structure the right wants?

It remains to be seen what Barack Obama will do for the remainder of his term. And national politics tends to reveal previously unknown facts about people who enter it, so perhaps Gary Johnson is less appealing than he seems. Were our criteria for viable presidential candidates more sane, however, he'd be a strong contender, due to his experience, desire to reform obviously broken policies, apparent lack of disqualifying traits, credibility in principled statements, and alignment with a sizable chunk of the most dissatisfied voters on key issues.

Instead attention is meted out based on opaque standards that are causing us to consider Mitt, Sarah and Newt as front-runners, a status quo that does a special disservice to tea party voters who'd love a former New Mexico governor if only they knew more about him.

At the very least, it is time to give Gary Johnson a fighting chance.