Johnson presents an opportunity for the tea party
Former NM governor shares the tea party’s ideology but has actually had to balance that ideology with governing in a practical way; his candidacy may present a moment for the tea party to decide its future
Conventional wisdom might suggest that former N.M. Gov. Gary Johnson has no chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination next year, but I believe people would be foolish to dismiss his candidacy at this point.
Remember that many dismissed then-District Attorney Susana Martinez as a “regional candidate” when she entered the gubernatorial race in 2009. As it turned out, she was, in fact, the “game changer” a headline on this site called her.
Why? Because New Mexicans, like Americans, are fed up with their government. They’re willing to take a chance on unknown candidates because they no longer trust most known politicians. They want someone to lead who isn’t afraid to say things are a mess, who can articulate how he will clean it up, and who has a record of actually doing it.
It’s the last point – actually doing it – that makes Johnson’s candidacy interesting. Because he draws much of his support from the tea party that has long supported Ron Paul, Johnson has to distinguish himself from Paul and his son, since one or the other is also likely to run for president. Here’s how Johnson set himself apart in an interview with Politico:
“There was a big difference between Ron Paul and me when it came to the ‘no,’” Johnson recently told Politico. “His ‘no’ was philosophical. It was reasoned. It was right. My ‘no’ actually put a stop to legislation. It cut spending. Mine carried further than just ‘no.’ I had to follow through with the debate, discussion and dialogue on why my ‘no’ wouldn’t result in people starving, schools being shut down and the delivery of services to the poor wasn’t going to be curtailed.”
Johnson has a record, and on the most important issue – the economy – it’s one GOP primary voters will love. Of course, on the flip side, Johnson also takes some very visible positions many GOP voters will hate – such as his support for civil unions and legalizing and marijuana. But the libertarian wing of Johnson’s party that sides with him on such issues has grown more active.
A moment for the tea party
However, the tea party is in danger of becoming, in my view, a stagnant movement. Millions of frustrated voters – most conservative – loosely banded together in 2010 and kicked a lot of politicians, most Democrats, out of power. But to become a more influential force, the movement must mature, and it must stand for something, instead of only standing against things.
That takes a candidate who is articulate. Johnson very genuinely and passionately believes in smaller government, and he’s had to make difficult decisions to accomplish that goal.
In addition, he isn’t just another extremist – education funding actually increased while Johnson was New Mexico’s governor.
Johnson is someone who shares the tea party’s ideology but has actually had to balance that ideology with governing in a practical way. His candidacy may present a moment for the tea party to decide its future.
If the tea party gathers around him
Johnson is intelligent and articulate; he’s athletic and hip (he climbed Mount Everest with a broken leg); he will be viewed as honest (he’s very open about his past drug use). He has potential in most categories that lead to likeability. That’s far different than the situation with Ron Paul and his son.
Johnson has a very simple message for America: We’re bankrupt, we’re on the verge of financial collapse, and we have to balance the budget, no matter what it takes. It’s a message that will resonate with many.
And he has the experience to back up his message: He’s made difficult choices, cut government waste and vetoed hundreds of bills, all while, he will argue, articulating “why my ‘no’ wouldn’t result in people starving, schools being shut down and the delivery of services to the poor wasn’t going to be curtailed.”
I have my doubts about whether the tea party movement is prepared to follow someone like Johnson. And even if the movement is ready, Johnson’s positions on social issues will make the road ahead difficult for him.
Perhaps it’s likely that Johnson’s presidential campaign will go nowhere. But I think there’s also a chance, if the tea party gathers around him, that he will become a significant candidate – and the tea party will become a lasting force.
A prior version of this posting incorrectly stated that Johnson supports gay marriage.
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