Is Gary Johnson the Next Ron Paul?

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Gov. Gary Johnson speaks at an event in downtown Phoenix. credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

On paper, Gary Johnson seems to fit right in with the rest of the potential 2012 Republican presidential field.

Having served two terms as governor of New Mexico -- one more term in office than Mitt Romney, and one-and-a-half more than Sarah Palin -- his biggest boast is that he vetoed 750 bills and over a billion dollars of spending from 1994 to 2002. He talks the fiscal-conservative talk as well as anyone out there.

"My entire life, I've just always thought that this is just not sustainable, and that at some point the bill would be due," he told me when I interviewed him before a speaking appearance at American University late last month. "I just think that that day is right now, finally."

This is the stuff every Republican primary voter seems to want to hear: Earnest appreciation of deficit catastrophe, and pledges to address the problem with drastic reductions in government spending.

"When you actually look at the resumes, maybe I'd be the one with the resume when it came to being fiscal conservative," he told me. "My resume stands out as being, holy cow, he's the most fiscally conservative of the whole group."

Except there are a few stark differences between Johnson and almost every other Republican angling for the White House -- and those differences, more likely than not, will come to define his underdog campaign.

For one, Johnson wants to legalize marijuana, and he likes to talk about it. He first raised the issue as governor, and he makes the fiscal case for drug law reforms with talk about the cost to taxpayers of law enforcement and prisons. He would have signed a bill banning late-term abortions, he told me, but he supports abortion rights until viability of a fetus. He enjoys ripping into hard-line immigration policies, as he has called for more visas for American-educated students and future businesspeople.

Thin and sandy-haired, Johnson talks with a serene focus that seems more Zen-master than politician. He built his own house in Taos, he told me, because the skiing there is great; he climbed Everest in 2003; he injured himself severely in a paragliding accident in 2005. When he talks one on one, he remains wide-eyed, engaged and relaxed.

Johnson is not a typical politician, by any means. He floats above the tensions and constant battles that the big-time GOP 2012 players, for instance, seem caught up in. Perhaps that's because he hasn't attained a status where everything he says is news.

What makes him different will probably keep him from winning the GOP nod in 2012, let alone the White House. His potential candidacy is, without a doubt, a very long-shot.

But his unconventionality is also what makes him fascinating, for this simple reason: Johnson appears poised to inherit swaths of Ron Paul's following -- the campaign-turned-movement that, in many ways, became the story of the 2008 Republican primary.

Of course, that all depends on whether Paul runs for president a second time.

If he does, Johnson's voice will likely echo Paul's onstage at Republican debates throughout the coming year. But if Paul doesn't run, his supporters could very well turn to Johnson, who is the only other GOP presidential candidate offering the same kind of stripped-down libertarianism that has attracted so many supporters to Paul. They share a thoroughgoing commitment to small-government that extends even to social policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Johnson vehemently opposes, as Paul did in 2008.

"We're building roads, schools, bridges, highways and hospitals in Afghanistan and Iraq both, and we're borrowing 43 cents out of every dollar to do it," Johnson told me. "I just think that [9/11] was 10 years ago, it's not a threat today.... We should be out of Afghanistan tomorrow, and the issues that we will face getting out of Afghanistan tomorrow will be identical to the issues that we'll face 25 years from now, if that's when we decide to get out."

Paul's 2008 supporters were attracted by the Texas congressman's fierce libertarianism, his willingness to buck the pressures imposed by mainstream Republican politics, his radical side, and his unvarnished way of explaining his positions. Johnson checks all those boxes.

Nearly every Republican politician -- especially those considering running for president -- is courting the tea party these days, but the movement's Paul supporters may not be won over by, say, Sarah Palin, or even Herman Cain. They like Paul for different reasons -- reasons that Johnson, a Paul '08 supporter himself, seems ready to supply.

Coincidentally, Johnson is probably the only likely 2012 aspirant, other than President Obama, whom you'll hear criticize the tea party -- something that, for the last two years, has been all but taboo in Republican circles.

"I hope that the Republican Party embraces the tea party, if you will, or that the tea party votes Republican," Johnson told me. "The tea party, at least I thought, initially, talked about limited constitutional government, but that seems to have caveats when it comes to the tea party, meaning we should cut spending, we should drastically reduce spending, but not Medicaid, not Medicare, not Social Security, not defense, and we oughtta build a fence when it comes to the border, and certainly not drug policy, and kind of on and on....

"There's a disconnect between liberty and freedom and the personal responsibility that goes along with that, as long as it's my liberty and freedom and not yours."

This morning, Johnson addressed the crowd at CPAC -- the annual three-day Conservative Political Action Conference, where presidential contenders routinely go, appearing as palmers before thousands of conservative  activists (many of them students) in the large ballroom at the Marriott in Washington, D.C.'s residential Woodley Park neighborhood.

When I spoke with Johnson at American University in January, he told me he "was kind of looking to get egged and tomatoed in this whole process and get sent back" to New Mexico. Today's speech, in a way, provided a test of whether the audience would throw food.

But the crowd liked him -- even as he pushed some of his more controversial points.

"I really wanted to take a hard look at the war on drugs in this country, and I wanted to include legalization as a potential alternative to what we were doing," Johnson told the audience, to cheers.

If it's any indication of Ron Paul's effect on Republican politics, CPAC's young audience has taken on a more libertarian strain since his 2008 run. Last year, Paul won the presidential straw poll, to the surprise of many.

In 2012, the libertarians in the Republican party will be looking for somewhere to go. Paul has not yet said whether he intends to run.

A marijuana legalizer will probably not win the White House any time soon. Johnson himself says the nation is two years away from a tipping point on the issue, when it stops being "the one issue you can't talk about and get elected." According to that timeline, the tipping point will occur several months after the 2012 Election Day.

But Johnson's campaign could surprise, in the same way Paul's did.

"Gary Johnson could very well make a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. 'Live Free or Die,' after all, is their motto," estimates Ethan Nadelmann, who heads the Drug Policy Alliance. "And if he does that, I can well imagine him attracting the sort of interest that Mike Huckabee did in early 2008."

Until then, Johnson will continue to travel and speak at small gatherings. His 501(c)4 group, the Our America Initiative, allows him to raise money and conduct political advocacy. Johnson told me he's been to 32 states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, and spoken to over 400 groups.

At American University, he took the stage in a small auditorium on a Monday afternoon, drawing perhaps 50 students. As he began speaking, he moved quickly from his business experience to his veto record to his stump lines about the war on drugs. The students listened intently.

It's entirely possible that a meaningful swath of GOP primary voters will, too.

Thumbnail image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr