Moments after he won the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, was handed a peace offering — a replica of one of George Washington’s pistols — by runner-up Austin Petersen.
“You have my sword, and my gun,” said Petersen.
Cameras rolling, Johnson accepted the gift. Then he watched Petersen tell delegates to oppose Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor Johnson had enticed to run for vice president, whose past views against marijuana legalization are seen as a deal-breaker for many orthodox libertarians.
Johnson is not so much about orthodoxy. In a snit as he walked out, he tossed the gun in the garbage. For days afterward, a busy network of libertarian blogs investigated the story, and got a confession. Fox News even ran with it.
“It wasn’t out of character,” said Johnson. “Maybe, what was out of character was doing it in a public way, where I kind of, sort of knew that it would be seen. In character would have been to do that in private. But to me, hypocrisy” — endorsing Johnson but not his running mate — “is the unforgivable sin.”
Johnson’s interpretation of libertarianism, and his sometimes surprising pragmatism on issues and alliances, raise a key question in an election year with two of the most unpopular major-party nominees in memory. Who would be hurt more by Johnson’s candidacy: Democrat Hillary Clinton, or Republican Donald Trump?
Johnson’s support of legal pot and his opposition to deportations could endear him to the left. His promise to sign any bill that lowers taxes could do the opposite.
Polling is not definitive on the subject, but for Johnson, the bigger test is pulling support from anyone at all. One survey this week from Fox News gave him 12 percent of the vote in a three-way race with Clinton and Trump — a decent showing for a candidate that most voters don’t know, or don’t know is a former governor, or don't know is a presidential candidate. The key for Johnson is to continue to be included in national polls at all — and to move that number up to 15 percent, so he qualifies for the fall debates.
Johnson, hawk-nosed and aerodynamically coiffed, is one of the least obviously power-hungry men to run for president. But he is not a pushover. Born in 1953, he founded a construction company while he was still in college. After it grew into the aptly named Big J Enterprises, Johnson had enough money to self-fund a 1994 bid for governor — and win, in an oddball race where a third-party candidate got 10 percent of the vote. He promised to run the state “like a business.” On the trail now, he mostly talks about his gubernatorial years to boast about his 739 vetoes.
“Every third Thursday of every month, I’d have an open-door policy — five minutes for anyone who wanted to call out waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Johnson. “I’d do the same as president.”
Decades later, Johnson’s takeover of the Libertarian Party, and success in getting it to nominate Weld, was nearly as radical as Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP. The LP is a bastion of radical libertarianism, a home to people who would rather be pure than win an election. Just 12 years ago, the party handed its nomination to Michael Badnarik, a freelance constitutional lecturer who refuses to obtain a driver’s license because that would mean using a Social Security number.
Johnson is an activist who imagines a Libertarian president — yes, seriously, he intends to win — using the executive branch to correct Congress’s mistakes. Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman and 1988 LP candidate who might be the country’s most famous libertarian, can hardly finish a paragraph without citing the Constitution.
Johnson refers to modern politics and the modern norms of presidential power. Asked how his presidency might begin, he starts by describing executive action, like reclassifying drugs (all of them) and ending the National Security Agency.
“The NSA was created by executive order,” Johnson said. “Did you know that? By executive order, for a starting point, you could turn the satellites away from the United States.” Johnson also sees no problem with “signing statements,” the extra language the executive might use to explain which parts of legislation he would not enforce. “I don’t imagine I would differ in that regard, given that it is a precedent.”
Johnson’s view of power, and the role of government, is not unique among libertarians. Since his first Libertarian bid, in 2012, he has described the party’s platform as “taking the best from both parties,” combining fiscal tightness with social liberalism. He has favored legal gay marriage since 2011; during the Libertarian contest this year, he criticized “religious liberty” laws that would have allowed merchants not to serve gays.
Nearly every Republican, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), opposed President Obama’s executive action to allow the children of immigrants to stay in the United States. Johnson supports it.
“I happen to agree with what he did,” said Johnson, “though I don’t know where executive orders stand in regard to the fact that he’s broken up 3 million families. He has deported millions of people back to Mexico, and their families have stayed here. That’s something I would not have engaged in.”
Johnson’s view on the issue is rooted, he said, in the obviously positive goal of allowing undocumented immigrants to work in the United States.
“Whether or not it was the right course of action or not, if it avoids deportation, yes,” said Johnson. “As a president, you’re talking about gridlock with Congress. Executive orders have a way of stimulating legislation. I kind of, sort of thought that was his goal — if you don’t like this, pass a bill.”
On policy after policy, Johnson comes off as more of a realist than the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, or the runner-up for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Both of those men imagined a popular movement breaking through a gridlocked Congress to pass a president’s agenda.
Johnson assumes that “libertarianism,” as the oasis between the parties, is already popular. He knows, as pollsters know, that the two major parties have chosen candidates who are decidedly unpopular. When offered a slogan, or a swing-for-the-fences idea, Johnson suggests that a reality-based Libertarian president would find a solution.
In his interviews with the Washington Post — two hours, over which he chided himself for saying “at the end of the day” too often — Johnson responded to every idea by imagining what Congress might pass or an executive might get past it. The Federal Reserve, for example, could not be abolished the way many libertarians want; but it could be tacked in. He waved off the popular libertarian catch phrase “taxation is theft.”
“It is theft, yes, but the reality is that we’re not gonna abolish taxes,” said Johnson. “I mean, if I’m elected president, you can expect me to sign anything that reduces taxes.” Asked about the old libertarian idea of a “basic income” replacing the welfare state — an idea recently resuscitated by Charles Murray, the libertarian author and political scientist — Johnson said the same thing. “If that’s legislation that gets passed — hey, I’m gonna look really seriously at signing it.”
Conservatives, who at this point are more wary of Johnson than liberals, ask if he’s simply too accommodating. The confidence that once inspired Johnson to walk around Zuccotti Park, seeking allies in the Occupy Wall Street movement, did not always lead to libertarian government in New Mexico. He vetoed as much spending as he claimed, but he also watched the state budget grow slightly faster than the national average.
In 2016, as a candidate, Johnson talks about balancing the budget but lacks the zeal of libertarians who think the state could be cut in half without consequence. He’d keep Social Security for current retirees. He wouldn’t abolish the EPA, after learning in New Mexico how the government policed bad actors.
“In the libertarian view, without the EPA, you as an individual could sue under the law,” said Johnson. “But not really. You don’t have deep pockets to go up against Chevron.”
Later, Johnson added that the government had its own mixed record. But the Libertarian Party platform focuses on the government, and only that, suggesting that the planet would be cleaner if the market would be allowed to work.
That thinking comes from a philosophical lack of faith in government that Johnson simply doesn’t share. In his hunt for a libertarian center, he comes off as less angry about the state than many Republicans.
That cuts to the reason he might appeal to liberals. Asked if he, as president, would sign off on the killing of American citizens who join terror groups, Johnson responded with a horrified “no.” The state might work better if Gary Johnson got to run it, but no president should be trusted to wage foreign adventures unchecked. Not since America’s intervention in Bosnia, he said, had the country been right to get involved in war.
Johnson also said that the Islamic State is not an existential threat, noting that terrorism kills only 400 people per year.
“Microphones get put in politicians’ mouths,” said Johnson, “and the reporters frame questions like: ‘These atrocities are happening in Libya. Are you going to stand by idly, and watch this happen?’ The knee-jerk response is, ‘of course I’m not,’ without considering that by getting involved in Libya, the outcomes are going to be worse.”