Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson looks relaxed in front of cameras. When he made it into the Republican debates in September, he cracked jokes, garnering some post-debate coverage. Seated across from Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" in early June, he engaged in an easy back-and-forth with the sharp host.
Still, he's got a mountain to climb. (It's not Everest. He already did that.) Johnson changed his party affiliation and became the Libertarian presidential candidate in May. He needs to poll at 15 percent to get into the televised debates between ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama. That rule was established by the Commission on Presidential Debates and has been criticized as a way to preserve the two-party system.
Nationwide, Johnson's pulling down decent numbers: 7 percent in Colorado, 9 percent in Arizona, 8 percent in Montana, according to Public Policy Polling. A Libertarian has never gotten more than 1.1 percent of the vote in a presidential election.
Johnson's pitching himself as the candidate who's more right than the right when it comes to money. He says the government is in the hole because it's taken on too many tasks. Johnson says we've got to continually ask ourselves: Should the government be doing this?
He also says he's more left than the left on social issues. He favors abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and, famously, ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana.
The drug issue factors into his immigration plan, too. If marijuana were to be made legal, border violence would be reduced, drug cartels would be diminished and illegal immigration would decrease, he says. Further, immigrants should be given a two-year grace period for obtaining work visas, according to Johnson, and it should be easier to get those work visas.
The Libertarian candidate for president spoke with the Alibi about how his new party is working out, his opinion of Gov. Susana Martinez and what minimal government really means.
What’s the campaign trail like for the third-party candidates?
Well, I am on the ballot in all 50 states. There are going to be only three candidates who can claim that, and I'm going to be one of them. So I'm on the road all the time, and when I'm not, I'm in New Mexico.
How do you hope to influence the national discourse? Is there one particular topic you'd like to change the conversation about?
All the topics. I'm going to be the only candidate that doesn't want to bomb Iran. I'm going to be the only candidate that wants to get out Afghanistan now—and the wars. I'm going to be the only candidate that wants to end the drug war. I'm going to be the only candidate that wants to bring about marriage equality, believing that it’s a constitutionally guaranteed right. I really, genuinely believe that I am offering a prescription for what ails America.
What does it feel like to watch the public slowly catch up to you on marijuana?
That's a good thing, the fact that 50 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. The main reason is that people are talking about it, and the more people talk about it, the better the issue does. For those who believe what I'm saying regarding marijuana has been dead-on, maybe what I'm saying about the economy and maybe what I'm saying about the wars are in that same category.
What do you think of the tensions between states—including New Mexico—and the feds over medical cannabis?
I think it's really horrible, given the fact that Obama promised to not crack down on any states where state Legislatures or citizens voted to establish medical marijuana programs. So it's especially frustrating, given his promise and actions to the contrary.
What's your take on the Citizens United decision?
What we really need when it comes to campaign finance reform is just 100 percent transparency. Citizens United affords anonymity, and that's the last thing we need. Just say who you're contributing to and who is contributing.
Do you support limits on how much corporations or unions can spend to influence elections?
I do not. I think that it should be unlimited but 100 percent transparent.
Is the Libertarian Party a better fit for you than the Republican Party?
Absolutely. With a broad brush stroke, most people in this country are fiscally responsible and socially tolerant. I'm in that category.
Do you see a lot of crossover between the Tea Party and Libertarians?
I see a crossover of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. They're both saying, Let's stop the spending. And then there's the notion that this country doles it out unfairly. This country is for sale. The loopholes are for sale, and you can buy them. It just costs you a political donation.
Highlight some of the differences between yourself and constitutionalist Republican candidate Rep. Ron Paul.
I don't know if the differences are significant enough to even point out. Ron Paul is a social conservative, and I'm not. But I don't think Ron Paul would advocate that the government pass laws regarding decisions that you and I should make. With regard to government policy, I don't know if there are any real differences.
Libertarians emphasize minimal government. What does that really mean?
I am specifically advocating elimination of the Department of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education.
The Department of Education was established in 1979 under Jimmy Carter, so this wasn't something that existed way back when. The federal government gives each state about 11 cents out of every school dollar that every state spends, but what people don't recognize is: That's money we sent to Washington in the first place. They take their little toll out of it, and then they send it back. But they send it back with 16 cents' worth of strings attached.
What I don't think people recognize is that it's really a negative to take federal money. If we just gave education back to the states, we would have some best practices that would get emulated by other states. We would also avoid some pretty horrible failures. But the notion that one size fits all—and I'm talking about Washington—I don't think so. I don't buy it.
With smaller government, would that leave corporations to rule instead?
No. Government has a responsibility to protect us against individuals, groups and corporations that would do us harm. Those functions don't go away.
How about environmental regulation? How involved should the federal government be?
I would put that in the basic category of: Government does need to protect us from individuals, groups and corporations that do us harm. Harm certainly is pollution in my opinion. It's the fundamental roll of government to protect us from polluters. And there are polluters who, but for government, don't give a damn.
Where are you on social programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps?
I am promising to submit a balanced budget to Congress in the year 2013. If we don't fix Medicaid and Medicare, for example, we're not going to have any Medicaid or Medicare. It would be better to reform these programs and live within our means so we can actually take care of those who are truly in need. But the consequences of continuing to print money to cover these obligations is going to be a collapse in our government. It's going to be a collapse in our monetary system where the dollars that we have aren't going to buy anything. In the history of the world, this is the consequence of doing exactly what we are doing. We're not immune from the mathematics of printing money.
What's your take on the GOP right now?
Both parties have lost touch. I think it's an exciting notion to potentially be the Libertarian president of the United States that would challenge Democrats on the left and challenge Republicans on the right. I challenge Republicans from a dollars and cents standpoint. I challenge Democrats from a civil liberty standpoint.
What do you think of the job Gov. Martinez is doing?
New Mexico has some tremendous issues, and they really start with the unfunded pension. I wish she were talking about these problems where the average New Mexican would understand that the state retirement accounts are $10 billion under water. And that's in lieu of the fact that we have a $5 billion budget. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen. She didn't make this catastrophe, I just wish more focus was given to these issues that are very significant and are going to have a huge negative impact on the state unless we address them.
If given a national stage in debates, do you think you have a better shot at taking President Obama's job than Mitt Romney?
I'm going to end up taking equally from both, and then I'm going to get votes from a group in the middle that wouldn't ordinarily vote. Actually in polling right now, that gets borne out. In New Mexico, I take the vote from Obama. That's as of today. In North Carolina, I take more votes from Romney.
Independent voters are on the rise in America today. How do you get them to go third party?
All I could ever hope for is that people would just give me a look. And if people give me a look, I think there is a lot there to suggest that No. 1, I could do this job, and No. 2, I could do it well.