Gary Johnson for President?

I sighed as I read Politco's piece talking up the prospects of a Gary Johnson presidential candidacy -- not because it was a bad ...
by | December 23, 2009

I sighed as I read Politco's piece talking up the prospects of a Gary Johnson presidential candidacy -- not because it was a bad piece, but actually the exact opposite.

I'd been planning to blog about the possibility that the former New Mexico governor will run for president. Now, they stole my thunder. Anyways, I still have a few somewhat-novel thoughts on the subject.

Politico is right to describe Johnson as an ideological successor to Ron Paul. And, there's a tradition of  ideological successors in presidential politics over the last 50 years. One presidential candidates will come along and stake out a (somewhat) new ideological niche. Then, in subsequent years, candidates with roughly the same views, but more mainstream appeal (for whatever reason) will come along.

The most famous example of this phenomenon is the way that Ronald Reagan's presidential bids built off of Barry Goldwater's unapologetic conservatism. Other examples: Mike Huckabee and Gary Bauer were supposed to be more politically seasoned versions of Pat Robertson's Christian right campaign, although that didn't work out that well.

At one time, folks even talked about President Obama as an ideological successor to Howard Dean, though a lot of people would probably object to that comparison today, starting with Obama and Dean. Maybe Robert Kennedy is a better analogy for Obama when it comes to liberal idealism.

Gary Johnson really fits the bill as a principled conservative libertarian who is in the mold of Paul, but who is more electable. His advantage isn't just that, as a two-term New Mexico governor, he's won a more important office than Paul. Paul's problem has that he tended more to preach to the converted than offer a persuasive case for people who didn't already believe in his views.

His bid was stymied by his obsessions with relatively arcane issues (most notably the gold standard) and the racist writings that appeared in a newsletter under his name. If Johnson can harness the energy of Paul's followers and avoid trouble, he could be able to make things interesting.

Here's my original thought: Johnson's biggest advantage is who isn't running. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was set to be the Republican who actually takes libertarianism seriously. He had built a record and a national following that set him up to be the next Ron Paul. But, Sanford decided to follow in the footsteps of Gary Hart and John Edwards instead. That's why Johnson has a chance to become a real force in the nomination fight.

A real force -- but can he win? In some sense, the moment looks perfect for the next Ron Paul. Some of the issues that Paul emphasized, like the Federal Reserve, seem more salient today than they did in 2008. Republicans, more than ever, are concerned about the size of government.

The thing about Johnson, though, is that, like a good libertarian, he's concerned not only with the size of government, but the scope of government. So, if his record is any indication, he doesn't generally think the government should be fighting wars in the Middle East, telling people what drugs they can use, telling women whether or not they can have abortions or telling immigrants whether they can work in the United States.

Maybe Johnson's case for limited government will be so cogent that the G.O.P. will abandon its views on foreign policy, abortion, immigration and drugs. More likely, Johnson will shake things up, but Republicans will end up going with a conventional conservative.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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