Q&A: Gary Johnson Embarks on “One of Humankind’s Great Adventures”

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Joshua Sudock/Courtesy of ZUMA Press

Concord, NH

Former two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson is running for president. He’s not testing the waters or forming an exploratory committee. Thursday, on the steps to the New Hampshire State Building, he announced he’s running for the Republican nomination. In a 25-minute speech, Johnson spent nearly as much time acknowledging the obstacles to his candidacy as he did his strengths. Yes, he conceded, he’s against the war in Iraq and U.S. engagement in Libya. He’d like to balance the budget tomorrow by slashing 43% off of all federal spending, including the Pentagon. He’d turn both Medicare and Medicaid into block grants to the states. He’s pro-immigration and his proud declaration that he’d love to legalize marijuana gave a passing class of sixth-graders the giggles.

Johnson is running on Ron Paul’s turf – the Texas Congressman doesn’t seem tempted to run for President again, but hasn’t ruled it out. Johnson certainly has the libertarian bonafides. He is a self-made millionaire who became a handyman during his junior year of college to make ends meet, only to turn odd-jobs into a 1,000-employee construction business that he sold in 1999. During his tenure as governor, he vetoed nearly 700 bills – more than all 49 other governors at that time combined. He’s pro-choice and doesn’t like the idea of government intrusion into the bedroom – or anywhere in the house for that matter. He left New Mexico’s budget in the black, and is fondly remembered there for that. In the eight years since leaving office, he’s been building his dream house in Taos, investing in “adventures,” as he puts it, climbing Mt. Everest, paragliding in Hawaii and competing in grueling Iron Man races.

So, what brings him out of semi-retirement? Three words: the Tea Party. Johnson sees this year as a potential window for someone like him to catapult to the presidency. Though he doesn’t appeal much to social conservatives or national security hawks, he’s hoping his fiscal resume can capture the Tea Party’s attention. I spent some time with Johnson after his announcement and asked him the following questions:

Why are you running for the GOP nomination – why not run as the Libertarian Party candidate?

Well, the idea would be to win and in my opinion Republicans are the only party capable of fixing what’s wrong with this country today and that would be the fact that we are bankrupt. And why the electorate would give Republicans back the Senate and the presidency after just a few short years ago they blew it, I’m not so sure. But that’s what I believe.

What’s different in your platform from Ron Paul’s platform?

You know, I ran two campaigns for governor where I didn’t mention my opponent in print, radio or television. The idea was to present ideas. The idea was to give people a choice as opposed to the lesser of two evils. So, when it comes to me and comparing myself to others, I’m not the person to talk to. I’d let you draw those conclusions.

Are you seeking his endorsement?

I don’t seek endorsements and I don’t give endorsements either.

Are you worried at all that Rand Paul might run for President?

Rand Paul – Rand Paul who having taken the Senate seat now and been in office for how many months? Five months and he’s going to run for President? I don’t know. I don’t lay awake thinking about it. The only thinking I have control of is here.

You don’t attend church and you’ve said in the past that Jesus is a “historical figure.” How do you plan on appealing to social conservatives?

Well, actually, I believe in God… And at a minimum Jesus was a great historical figure – at minimum at great role model – at minimum. I don’t know that anybody who votes on social issues – that I got any of those votes in my primaries in New Mexico. I think I got them all in the general election. But I don’t think I got them in the primary. And so I’m not doing anything to alienate those social conservatives, but I probably won’t get their vote – not in the primary.

What about defense conservatives – you want to slash Pentagon spending, you’re against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in its current form – how do you appeal to hawks?

I would argue that we’re not going to be any good to any country worldwide bankrupt and that’s the position that we’re putting ourselves into. I would be looking at really judicious use of our military to be used when there would be threat. And I would just argue that it didn’t exist in Iraq. It did in Afghanistan, initially, that was Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and in six months we could’ve taken them out 10 years ago.

Would you like to see any federal agencies abolished?

A couple. One would be the Department of Education. The federal Department of Education gives states about 11 cents out of every dollar that states spend but it comes would about 16 cents of strings attached. So, it’s really a negative to take federal money when it comes to education. If you did away with the federal Department of Education completely and returned education to the states – 50 laboratories of innovation – I genuinely believe that there would be some absolutely true, genuine innovation that would get emulated by other states. There’d be failure. We’d obviously avoid the failure. But Washington top down, one size fits all – it doesn’t fit all. It doesn’t work. And Housing and Urban Development. Clearly, low cost loans have been made available at a price that this country is still reeling over when it comes to the financial crisis but I do think that their intentions have gone way beyond what it originally was and it’s really not needed. I can’t think of anything that they do that benefits you or I.

Any constitutional amendments that should be repealed?

I like the notion of repealing the 17th amendment [which established the direct election of U.S. senators], but I don’t think that that’s going to happen.

Donald Trump joked that Mitt Romney won’t have enough money. You’ve got Romney, Huntsman, probably Trump – all multi-millionaires – in this race, a President who could raise as much as $1 billion for his reelection campaign. How can you compete? And will you use your own money?

It’s way beyond my own resources. I certainly have to this point – to get me to here – but it goes way beyond personal finances to be able to do this. I’m in need of grassroots people contributing. How can you compete in a market that can raise so much money? We really believe that we can raise enough money to be competitive… Obviously, that’s going to involve a lot of work and some entrepreneurialship on our part to do somethings in a better more effective way, so I have no complaints about the process. Having run for governor of New Mexico I have no complaints. The rules are what they are and I accept that and I expect to do well in this process.

Why do you want to be President?

I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do a good job at it. And I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that this was also one of humankind’s great adventures also.