By John Toole
Gary Johnson says things that would drive your friendly neighborhood Republican political consultant up a wall.
He's pro-choice on abortion, favors legalizing marijuana, wouldn't object to states legalizing prostitution and wants to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow.
The former two-term governor of New Mexico even embraces the "L-word."
"I'm a classical liberal," Johnson said. "I believe less government is the best government."
As he finally made the national presidential debate stage last week, Johnson admitted he is different from all the rest. He said he's the only one in the group not angling for the social conservative vote.
"I actually think I speak on behalf of the majority of Republicans," Johnson said. "But, of course, I'm putting that to the test."
Johnson, 58, is trying to break out of the pack in the Republican field. Last week he sat down for more than an hour with the Eagle-Tribune editorial board to talk about why he is running and discuss his platform.
New Hampshire is where the Johnson campaign will live or die.
"We're putting all the resources I have into New Hampshire," Johnson said. "You either get your 'Advance to Go' card coming out of New Hampshire or you get your pink slip," he said. "I'm putting my fate in the hands of New Hampshirites."
Johnson's focus is on fiscal issues. "I think I really shine when it comes to pocketbook issues, dollars and cents," Johnson said.
His big worry — he thinks it's the nation's real national security threat — is a federal financial calamity. "I'm in the camp that believes we are on the verge of a monetary collapse. That would be a bond market collapse," Johnson said.
Johnson believes action now can still head off such a disaster. A president and the government doesn't have 15 years to attack the problem, he said.
"Let's be proactive and fix what's wrong," Johnson said. "The government spends more money than it takes in. How is that sustainable?" he asked. "I've always thought there is a reckoning to this. I think it's here."
Johnson would slash federal spending, including defense spending, by 43 percent, delivering a balanced budget to Congress in 2013.
He pledges to veto spending that exceeds federal revenues.
Johnson would scrap the federal tax system, replacing income, capital gains and estate taxes with a single consumption tax of 23 percent. The so-called "fair tax," which Johnson did not originate, would include a system of "prebates" to citizens that would cover the cost of the tax up to the national poverty level so it does not unfairly burden the poor.
"This really puts this country in a position, economically, to hire tens of millions or create tens of millions of jobs with that kind of reboot to the computer," Johnson said.
"It's fair. It greatly simplifies the system. The more money you make, the more fair tax you're going to pay. It's going to promote savings."
Johnson believes this is the answer to what ails the government's fiscal condition and the nation's economy.
He wants voters to believe he will, in his words, doggedly pursue this course. His record in New Mexico says as much, according to Johnson.
Johnson was running about 2 percent in the polls four months before he was elected governor. He managed a convincing victory in that race and his re-election campaign four years later, running in a state where Democrats controlled the Legislature.
They would come to know him as "Governor Veto" in New Mexico.
"Seven-fifty on the button, eight years," Johnson said, when asked if he kept track of all his vetoes. "Thousands of line-item vetoes. Only two were overridden." Didn't matter to Johnson whether it was a Democrat bill or Republican bill. "I was an equal opportunity vetoer," Johnson said. "It really made a difference."
Johnson likes to talk on the campaign trail about a report showing he was the best among the governors running for president in creating jobs. He credits his use of the veto, as well as his authority over boards, commissions and agencies.
"In essence, I had control of rules and regulations," Johnson said. "They got better on a daily basis."
Bring troops home
On the federal stage, Johnson has clear ideas about what he would do. They include curtailing spending on both defense and foreign aid.
"We should have a strong military defense. The operative word being defense as opposed to offense," Johnson said.
He doesn't think the U.S. needs to be spending 52 cents of every worldwide military dollar when the nation is 5 percent of the world's population. "I've lived my entire life thinking we don't need to blow up the world 10 times over," Johnson said. "Maybe six times will do."
He knows when he would bring troops home.
"Iraq and Afghanistan? Tomorrow," Johnson said.
The key to his strategy is military alliances. "Other countries need to take up the slack they haven't had to for decades," Johnson said.
Europe can afford its health system, Johnson contends, because the United States is paying for national defense there.
At home, Johnson sees competition as a cure for America's health care and education woes.
"Free market approaches to health care," Johnson said.
He said he would love to be able to purchase health care in a competitive market. "Advertised pricing," Johnson said. "The government could mandate advertised pricing."
As governor of New Mexico, he advocated school choice and competition. "I believe the only way to reform education in the country is bring competition to public education," Johnson said.
He would abolish the federal Department of Education. "Give education back to the states," Johnson said. He said they will become 50 labs of innovation. "There will be some spectacular success that will be emulated," Johnson said. "We need a radical approach to doing this better."
Johnson isn't a hard liner on illegal immigration, despite governing a border state. He says the issue is complicated.
"You don't build a fence," Johnson said. "You don't station more National Guard at the border."
He also wouldn't round up illegals. "It's nutty."
Johnson would liberally grant work visas, believing illegals are not depriving Americans of jobs. He would insist on background checks and that they pay taxes. He said he would not be in favor of letting immigrants "jump the line" on citizenship.
Johnson is a divorced father of two grown children. He likes to talk about how he grew a one-man handyman business into a construction business employing 1,000.
He is an adventurer who has climbed Mount Everest, among other trophy peaks, and competed in Iron Man competitions in Hawaii. A para glider accident broke his back in 2005 and left him an inch and a half shorter.
Johnson came out for legalizing marijuana in 1999. He admits to marijuana use, though he says he doesn't smoke now.
"I have smoked marijuana in my life," Johnson said. "It wasn't a youthful indiscretion. It's something I did. I'm not alone in that category."
After the para glider accident, friends provided him marijuana for pain relief, he said. "Using marijuana during that period helped me, immeasurably," Johnson said, though he said he "broke the law" by doing so.
"I don't think I ever bought; I don't think I purchased any during that whole period," Johnson said. "A lot of people were willing to help me out."
Marijuana is the only drug he favors legalizing, Johnson said. "If we do that we really take giant steps toward rational drug reform, which in my opinion is looking at the drug problem as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue."
In Johnson's view, national drug policy isn't working and is crowding prisons, driving up justice system costs and resulting in violent deaths south of the border.
"Don't for a second underestimate the effect prohibition has on border violence," Johnson said. "Border violence is prohibition related, period. Legalize marijuana and arguably 75 percent of border violence with Mexico goes away."
Johnson sees former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the clear leaders in the field at this point. "A lot of attention is being given to the two," Johnson said.
But he's hoping his appearance on the national stage in the Florida debate last week will help bring him attention and contributions to help his campaign.
"I'm a believer in the system," Johnson said. "I happen to think my resume just shouts that I might be the guy."
Political office: Two-term New Mexico governor, 1994-2003.
Before politics: Grew handyman business into construction company employing 1,000.
Personal: Divorced father of two grown children.
Nickname: "Governor Veto." Earned by his 750 vetoes as governor.
Interests: Skiing, cycling, mountain climbing.
One defining moment: Back injury in para glider crash cost him inch and a half in height. Sought relief in marijuana.
- Balanced budget to Congress in 2013.
- Cut spending 43 percent, including defense and foreign aid.
- Veto spending programs unsupported by revenue.
- Reform tax system. Replace income, capital gains and estate taxes with 23 percent consumption or "fair" tax.
- Legalize marijuana.
- Combat illegal immigration by granting work visas.
- Eliminate federal Department of Education, give control back to states.
- Bring troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan.
- Support choice in health care. One proposal: Mandated advertising for prices.
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