There are certain shibboleths in presidential politics that even the most forthright candidates feel obliged to repeat, certain topics they feel compelled to avoid. Yet talk to former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the unorthodox 2012 GOP hopeful, and those rules go out the window. Ask about church, and he says he doesn’t go. “Do you believe in Jesus?” I ask. “I believe he lived,” he replies with a smile. Ask about shifts in position, and he owns up to one. “I changed my mind on the death penalty,” he tells me. “Naïvely, I really didn’t think the government made mistakes.” Ask about his voting history, and he volunteers (without regrets) that he cast his first presidential ballot for George McGovern (“because of the war”). Ask about his longstanding support for marijuana legalization, and he recalls the joy of his pot-smoking days. “I never exhaled,” he says. (An avid athlete, Johnson forswore marijuana and alcohol decades ago when he realized they were hurting his ski times and rock-climbing ability.)
Like Ron Paul, whom he endorsed in 2008, Johnson is an unabashed libertarian-and, in some ways, a purer one (he’s pro-choice, pro-free trade, and pro-immigration). So, while he’s no culture warrior or foreign policy hawk—he opposed the war in Iraq and the troop surge in Afghanistan—he outflanks any Republican on fiscal issues, proposing an immediate, across-the-board 43 percent spending cut. “We’re on the precipice,” he says, of the country’s finances. To illustrate what lies in the abyss, at times he flashes his favorite prop: a $100 trillion bill from Zimbabwe that he keeps in his wallet.
Over the past ten months, Johnson has taken his libertarian gospel on the road, speaking to conservative campus groups, Tea Party rallies, and Republican conferences in over 30 states. He has appeared on countless radio and TV programs—everything from “Hannity” to “The Colbert Report”—and is putting the finishing touches on a book. Johnson isn’t merely testing the presidential waters; several Johnson confidants told me that nothing—not even another Ron Paul campaign—will stop him from running. “There’s no waiting or seeing,” says one. “It’s a done deal.”
“Everybody’s been aware of it, even during the last campaign,” says Paul, whom Johnson informed of his intentions in April 2008. “I don’t remember when anybody didn’t assume that he would run for president.” Fortunately for Johnson, Paul, while not ruling out a second act, has shown little appetite for one. (“I have made no plans,” he told me.) And if he doesn’t run, he’ll “most likely” throw his weight behind Johnson. “I can’t imagine endorsing anybody else,” he says. The path, then, looks clear for Gary Johnson to become the Ron Paul of 2012—with one key difference: In the last election, wherever he campaigned, the dour Paul found himself surrounded by a traveling show—a motley movement of potheads, conspiracy theorists, and other colorful characters. This time, Gary Johnson is the show.
At age 57—sporting Oakleys, blue jeans, and a white t-shirt—Gary Johnson still evokes the carefree irreverence of a college undergrad. “I was your C student,” says the former political science major. “I paid attention in the classes that were about how to get elected.” And, in 1994, it paid off. “He came out of nowhere in the Republican primary against bigger and better known opponents ... and then beat legendary [Democrats] with wide appeal,” recalls Bill Richardson, who succeeded the term-limited Johnson in 2002.
But if Johnson harbored dreams of higher office when he left the governor’s mansion, he did an awfully good job of hiding them. Unlike Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, or any former officeholder looking to keep his name fresh, Johnson didn’t write a book, start a PAC, hit the lecture circuit, or become a talking head on Fox News. Instead, he spent most days biking and skiing, taking the odd trip to Nepal for a trek up Mount Everest, to France for a gas-balloon competition, to Maui for a paragliding run, and to the emergency room for the occasional life-threatening injury. (“I haven’t paraglided since,” he says of his most serious brush with death. “But I’m going to. I’ll do it in Salt Lake, where there aren’t any trees.”)
Johnson’s political hibernation was remarkable, however, for another reason: He never sought to reinvent himself ideologically. And he never learned to pander. In many ways, he’s the anti-Romney. Consider each man’s treatment of Sarah Palin. In July, after aides were quoted ridiculing her, @MittRomney took to Twitter for some 140-character brownnosing: “TIME says unnamed advisors disparaged @SarahPalinUSA. Anonymous numbskulls. She’s proven her smarts; they’ve disproven theirs.”
What does Johnson make of Palin? On a drive through the foothills of New Hampshire, I ask him. Riding shotgun, he turns the question around on me. “Um, I guess some people think she’s folksy,” I say from the backseat. “Well, at first she strikes you as folksy,” he shoots back. “And then you realize: She might be running for president of the United States! And then, don’t we have the obligation to tell her what a terrible idea that is?” Cupping his hands to his mouth, he brays, “Sarah! We love you! Don’t run!” He also performs a rendition of the “deer-in-the-headlights” interview she did on “The O’Reilly Factor,” about the BP oil spill.
Johnson seems to relish flouting the watch-your-step etiquette most politicians practice religiously. Richardson, for example, spoke politely—even graciously—of his predecessor. “Nobody should underestimate Gary Johnson,” he told me. When Johnson talks about Richardson, by contrast, he doesn’t hide his disdain: He hones in on the ethics allegations that have plagued the current governor and reels off a lengthy list of his other qualms. After Richardson became governor, Johnson recounts, “he was teaching a course at the university, and he invited me as the guest. So I came, and somebody said, ‘What’s the biggest difference between you and Richardson?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think the difference is that I put issues first and politics last. Richardson puts politics first and issues last.’ And, actually, that was the truth. Couldn’t have been more accurate. And he was sitting there, and I don’t think he really liked it.”
Gary Johnson has his doubters, to say the least. “I think Lyndon Johnson has as much chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2012,” says veteran political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg. He’s right, given Johnson’s heresies on virtually all non-economic issues. That said, it’s not implausible that Johnson could gain traction (perhaps more than Paul did) in New Hampshire and other libertarian-minded states. He has considerable personal advantages over Paul—eight years of executive experience, greater campaign-trail energy, better communication skills—and today’s GOP is dominated by talk of the poor economy and the size of government, providing a far better climate for a strict libertarian than the one that prevailed in 2008. Moreover, assuming the Democratic nomination isn’t contested, independents should make up a much larger segment of the Republican electorate this time around in states, like New Hampshire, where they can vote in party primaries. And even voters who don’t line up with Johnson on the issues may still be charmed by his freewheeling style.
After trashing Palin on our drive through New Hampshire, Johnson spots a cop car in the rearview mirror. The chauffeur, Johnson adviser Ronald Nielson, pulls the rented Mazda SUV to the side of the road, and the green-clad officer ambles over. “I stopped you because you were going eighty-three in a sixty-five,” he says, peppering the driver with questions. As he disappears with Nielson’s license and registration, Johnson scolds himself for forgetting his Valentine One radar detector. “You can’t seriously speed without a Valentine One,” he tells us. “The Valentine would’ve sniffed him out long before that happened.” The officer returns two minutes later, and the roadside ritual ends anticlimactically. “I’m letting you off with a warning,” he says. “Don’t ask me why.”
As we drive off, Johnson breathes a sigh of relief, floating theories about the merciful cop. But the close call sends him into a lighthearted rant on the absurdity of federally mandated speed limits. “Look,” he says, “there are times and places where it would be perfectly safe to go one-forty, and there are others where it would be reckless to go fifty-five.” Within moments, he’s taking aim at stop signs and red lights. “I’m not opposed to the concept,” he allows. “But sometimes, you know, it’s 5:30 in the morning! There’s nobody on the road!” Johnson laughs, turns in his seat, and fixes me with a grin. “That’s the first sign you know you’re a libertarian,” he says. “You see the red light. You stop. You realize that there’s not a car in sight. And you put your foot on the gas.”
Benjamin Birnbaum is a reporter at The Washington Times. This article ran in the November 11, 2010, issue of the magazine.