What Gary Johnson Brings to the GOP Presidential Race

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson has just announced his candidacy for president, and, finally, a Republican is actually running. Johnson didn't announce an exploratory committee, or that he's thinking about running. He announced that he's a candidate for president.

"I'm ready for a different America," Johnson said on the steps of the New Hampshire state house.

You may be asking: Who is Gary Johnson? Is he a serious candidate? Why have I never heard of him?

In a field of potential contenders who all talk about drastic spending cuts and echo a small-government message designed to resonate with tea partiers, Johnson is the only bona fide social and economic libertarian in the race. If Ron Paul doesn't run, then Johnson really will stand a chance to inherit the libertarian mantle in the 2012 Republican primary, though Paul formed an exploratory committee two weeks ago.

Johnson served two terms as governor of New Mexico, winning that job as an entrepreneur with no prior political experience. He earned a reputation for his vetoes, which he talks about a lot these days.

He stands for school vouchers, a balanced budget, the block-granting of Medicaid, and against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Johnson will sound to many like a one-issue candidate, because there's one issue that sticks out, above all else, in his platform: Johnson wants to legalize marijuana. And he's eager to tell you about it.

I've seen Johnson's stump speech in person, and it works like this. He introduces himself as an entrepreneur who has applied business experience to government. He talks about his record of vetoing 750 bills from New Mexico's Democratic legislature, during his two terms, to keep spending in check. Then he jumps right into marijuana.

On that topic, the former governor articulates his views persuasively as a fiscal hawk, arguing that government can't really afford to incarcerate so many drug convicts. "We're arresting 1.8 million people per year," Johnson told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. in February. "We now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, we now have the highest incarceration rate in the world." The crowd was receptive.

This is how Johnson explained his views on marijuana legalization to me in an interview in January, before he spoke to a small group of students at American University, one of many colleges he visited in the past year.

My reasons for doing it are A through Z, but initially it was the fact that I had promised a cost/benefit analysis to everything it was that state government was doing. Well, it turns out that half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts and the prisons, is drug related, and to what end? Now this is where I came from it initially, and I have smoked marijuana in my life also, so I've never really thought it criminal -- I've never really thought it warranted jail sentences. But as governor of New Mexico, half of law enforcement, courts, prisons -- drug related. And what are we getting for spending all that money? Well, we're arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country and we now have 2.3 million people behind bars, which is the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, so after looking at the issue for a fairly short amount of time, I just came to the overwhelming conclusion that 90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition related, not use related. That's not to discount the problems of use and abuse, but that ought to be the focus. So legalize marjiuana, control it, regulate it, tax it, never gonna be legal to smoke pot, become impaired, and get behind the wheel of a car and do harm to others, never gonna be legal for kids to smoke pot, or buy pot. And under which scenario would pot be more available, the one that exists today where you can virtually buy it anywhere and the person that sells pot also sells other drugs, or a situation where you had to produce an ID in a controlled [setting] like alcohol to buy pot? Based on Holland's experience and Portugal's experience, I think you could make a case that there would be less kids smoking pot than there is today.

This plan to legalize marijuana seems to be an extension of Johnsons' thoroughgoing libertarianism, but given that he makes it a prominent component of his platform, Johnsons' palatability to GOP voters will hinge on their acceptance of his point. And that's not likely to happen in the next year and a half.

Support for marijuana legalization hovers between 40 percent and 45 percent, nationally. A recent Pew Research Center survey found 45 percent support, but 30 percent support among Republicans. When I spoke with Johnson in Feburary, he suggested that opinion on marijuana would reach a tipping point in two years, and at that point politicians would be able to support it and get elected. Which means that, by Johnson's own admission, a legalization supporter won't be able to win a big election in November 2012.

In the past year, Johnson has traveled the country speaking to small groups. He's funded by his 501(c)4 political group, the Our America Initiative, which does not disclose its finances.

Raising money could be a significant challenge for Johnson, though Ron Paul proved in 2007 and 2008 that libertarians can raise significant money online. Johnson collected two percent in a March Gallup poll of Republicans, placing him alongside Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Haley Barbour, and one percentage point behind Tim Pawlenty.

"I would say that his chances for the Republican nomination would be remote," said former RNC chairman and current GOPAC Chairman Frank Donatelli, when I asked him about Johnson's prospects in February. "That being said, I think it's great to get as many candidates in the race who have many viewpoints on things ...

"If Gov. Johnson is going to be running as a social and economic libertarian, I say more power to him. I don't know how much mileage he's going to get on the social libertarian message, as opposed to the economic libertarian message."

The role of the long-shot candidate isn't always to win. Though he never came close to winning an important primary state, Ron Paul affected U.S. politics with his 2008 campaign. It forced libertarianism further into the conversation in Republican circles, and it helped give rise to the tea party movement. Tom Tancredo, similarly, never stood a chance of winning the GOP presidential primary in 2008, but he generated some added discussion of immigration policy in the primary.

He may or may not have a real shot not at his party's nomination, but, if nothing else, Johnson is the only Republican out there making the social libertarian case for 2012.

Drop-down image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr