On Thursday, PolicyMic writer Sagar Jethani spoke with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who ran as the Libertarian Party's 2012 presidential candidate. Johnson shared his observations about the rise of the GOP's libertarian wing, the role of safety nets in a limited government, and the ability of third parties to compete in national elections.
Sagar Jethani (SJ): Since the November elections, there has been a marked interest in the libertarian wing of the Republican party represented by figures like Rand Paul and Justin Amash. What's your take on this?
Gary Johnson (GJ): Republicans lost because of their social agenda — because of their views on marriage equality, on a woman's right to choose, on immigration, and on drug policy. It was fear of that agenda which made the difference in the election. So now some Republicans are going to call themselves libertarians. They'll say they're socially conservative, but that they won't use government to make policy in those areas.
SJ: What's the overlap between libertarianism and the Republican approach to government?
GJ: I used to run as a Republican, and the words I used as a Republican didn't suddenly change when I ran as the Libertarian Party nominee. The majority of Republicans do not actually have a social agenda. They are fiscally responsible, and socially accepting. Really, most of us just don't give a damn. We don't care how other people live their lives as long as long as your life doesn't adversely affect mine. That's when government does have a role.
SJ: If you had chosen to remain in the Republican primary race, where would you have broken ranks with the other candidates?
GJ: I would have been different from every other candidate on the question: would you support a budget plan that involved 10% tax increases to 90% spending cuts? Every Republican answered no. You're talking about the biggest issue facing the country. I would have said "Absolutely, yes! Pass that legislation!"
SJ: I remember thinking their answer was really intended for Grover Norquist, not the viewers at home.
GJ: (Laughs) Exactly! You're the president of the United States and you're given an opportunity to actually address the biggest issue facing this country and you're going to say no because of a dime's worth of tax increases?
SJ: Some members of the GOP's libertarian wing support limited government until you tap an issue on their moral agenda. Rand Paul has supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That wouldn't fly with libertarians.
GJ: That's right. Some libertarians may be socially conservative, but they're the last people in the world who are going to want to make a decision for a woman about her pregnancy, for example. I do believe that marriage equality is constitutionally guaranteed, hence the role of the federal government protecting it as opposed to leaving it up to states.
SJ: Justin Amash has joined Rand Paul in arguing that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left up to states. You don't agree?
GJ: I get a little frustrated with social conservatives because they punt on the social issues by leaving it up to the states. Libertarians do not want to punt on those issues, and that is a stumbling block for Republicans. There is a federal role in our lives inherent in the Constitution.
SJ: Another point of difference is the Republican propensity for military intervention.
GJ: And now John McCain is trying to raise everyone's blood pressure about the need for military intervention in Syria. That has my blood boiling. Let's stop with the military intervention. And you know who's driving that? It's Republicans, and McCain is the head of that spear.
SJ: Last year the website iSideWith reported that when people completed its online survey to identify which candidate best represented their views, the vast majority of them discovered they supported libertarian principles. If the actual election results had been based solely on where people stand on the issues, you would be in the White House right now.
GJ: That's right.
SJ: Why is it that the idea of limited government, an idea which resonates with so many Americans, captures so few of their votes?
GJ: Because you don't know there's somebody out there talking about these issues. Toward the end of my campaign, I read somewhere that I got 1/1000th of the media coverage of Obama and Romney. I think it was actually worse than that. It's about getting heard. I wasn't heard.
SJ: How much of that is because of money?
SJ: You received just under 1% of the popular vote in last year's presidential election. Will we eventually see a third-party president, or has the two-party system so captured our electoral process that the best a third-party candidate can do is raise issues and help frame the debate?
GJ: Prior to the election last year, I would have said yes, third parties definitely have a chance. But I was really disappointed in the showing. The only way a third party has a chance of winning is to have enough money to actually be heard. Take Michael Bloomberg with his net worth of $30 billion. If he wants to spend a billion to trumpet whatever he wants to say, he's going to have an opportunity to be heard and get elected. Do I have an opportunity to get elected? Well, somehow I have to have $50 million to leverage that going forward. Is that going to happen?
SJ: It comes back to money?
GJ: It comes back to money.
SJ: But imagine that a third party candidate actually wins the popular vote. So what? The Electoral College actually chooses the president. And the people who sit in the Electoral College are put there by Democrats and Republicans. The very nature of the electoral process favors the two incumbent parties.
GJ: Exactly. It's a stacked deck.
SJ: How much does the stacking depend on who is allowed to participate in the debates?
GJ: Look at the Commission on Presidential Debates: it's entirely made up of Republicans and Democrats. None of them have any interest whatsoever in seeing a third party onstage.
SJ: Who do you think should be included in the presidential debates?
GJ: I think a very fair requirement would be: are you on enough state ballots to win the election? Using that approach, four people would have qualified to be in the national debate in the last election: [Green party candidate] Jill Stein, myself, Obama and Romney.
SJ: I'd like to talk about the libertarian approach to safety nets. Since the New Deal, people expect that instead of simply providing basic protections, government should also shield them from economic harm. Are we able to significantly reduce safety nets at a time when so many Americans depend on them?
GJ: I don't know if it's possible, but I absolutely believe that unless we balance the federal budget and cut entitlement programs to the tune of 30 percent then we will find ourselves with no safety nets at all. That's the eventual outcome. Now, is that a sexy message? One that resonates with people who are currently depending on these programs?
SJ: That's a tough sell.
GJ: Absolutely. And how are you able to deliver that message so that everyone understands that this is really necessary?
SJ: So the goal is actually the preservation of safety nets for those who need them — and that preservation is threatened by our lack of fiscal discipline?
GJ: You said it. I think the federal government should get out of health care delivery completely. Instead, issue block grants to states — a fixed amount of money — and leave it to the states to establish how to deliver health care to those truly in need.
SJ: And you would fund this with a consumption tax.
GJ: I support eliminating income tax, corporate tax, and abolishing the IRS. Replace it all with one federal consumption tax, something that market economists have embraced as the way to reform taxes. Social Security would then be paid for out of a national consumption tax instead of a payroll deduction with an employer match.
SJ: Wouldn't replacing income and corporate taxes with a consumption tax disproportionately hit lower-income Americans who typically spend more of their income?
SJ: Taylor Peck, one of the founders of iSideWith, observed that while young people may lean Republican on fiscal discipline, they ultimately broke for Democrats in the last cycle because of their social views and aversion to military intervention.
GJ: I completely agree. And if Republicans don't get it, they're not going to regain the presidency.