I extend my hand, but the former New Mexico Governor reaches his arms around for a hug instead. I have known for some time that Gary Johnson is no cookie-cutter politician, but that fact becomes increasingly clear as we chat near a Starbucks in the lobby of Sacramento International Airport. The Governor is energetic and personable, even in the midst of his sleep-depriving schedule (he is flying out to Chicago for meetings, only to fly right back to California the next evening). Johnson’s son, Erik, the spitting image of his father, is in an infectiously good mood as he helps manage his father’s schedule over his cell phone and laptop.
Gary is disarmingly normal. Nothing about him conveys the wooden, over-rehearsed, pre-packaged archetype of a regular politician. He is dressed comfortably, he has a very humble manner about him, and he speaks in strikingly honest terms. If you saw him on the street, you’d never know he is a former two term Governor who might soon be a major presidential candidate.
As we talk, I can’t help but draw comparisons between him and the presumed frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Both started out as successful business executives: Romney’s an investment firm, Johnson’s a construction company. Both were Republican Governors in Democrat-dominated states. Both appear to be placing their presidential bets on the independent-minded areas of New Hampshire and the Mountain West.
Yet, as many convergences as there are between Johnson and Romney, they are the exact opposite. Mitt Romney came from an affluent, well-known background and graduated from Harvard. Gary Johnson is a University of New Mexico grad who pulled himself up by his boot-straps, creating a multi-million dollar company literally from scratch. Gov. Romney strove to be a moderate Republican, crafting a universal health care bill with state Democrats. Gov. Johnson strove to be a principled libertarian Republican, vetoing about as many bills as all the vetoes of the other 49 Governors combined.
“What is your opinion of Mitt Romney?” I can’t help but ask.
Gary makes it clear that he doesn’t want to attack Mitt Romney. After all, I’m talking to the man who refused to run a single negative ad during either of his gubernatorial campaigns. “I will say that he did a wonderful job managing the Olympics, but I think others will be looking at the similarities between his health care legislation and the national health care legislation that was just passed,” Gary offers.
I start in on some major issues of the day. Mitt Romney believes the proper response to North Korea’s aggression is to increase the isolation of that country. Gary Johnson, on the other hand, is more cautious. “It’s a complicated issue,” he admits. “I wouldn’t want to presume to make military decisions without knowing all the details. I am concerned that South Korea’s options in dealing with North Korea might be hampered due to our military’s presence in the region. Perhaps we need to look at removing some of our troops from that situation.”
In 2007, Mitt Romney ripped ABC News for publishing a leak exposing the CIA’s plans to create instability in Iran. I ask Gary what his thoughts are on the recent Wikileaks revelations. He strongly recommends that the freedom of the press not be abridged and that Wikileaks not be prosecuted (though he does express his wish that the names of Afghan and Iraqi informants be protected, so as not to make them targets). “Always state the truth,” he declares. “In my administration in New Mexico, we didn’t keep secrets. Transparency is so important.”
Mitt Romney recently joined Sen. Jim DeMint in pressing for a ban on earmarks in the legislature. An earmark ban “will curb wasteful spending and restore accountability,” says Romney. Gary shrugs. “They’re inconsequential. They’re miniscule. A ban on earmarks would just be nibbling around the edges. I support the ban on earmarks because they’ve become so symbolic of the wasteful spending in government, but we can do so much more.” Gary suggests, “Why not offer to repeal the prescription drug entitlement that Republicans passed, in return for the Democrats agreeing to repeal President Obama’s health care plan? We give up our turkey, you give up yours.”
“I wish there were an easy way to sell that to the American people,” I chuckle.
He counters, “I think we underestimate how much the American people respect and appreciate hearing the truth.”
The contrast soon becomes apparent on economic issues as well. Mitt Romney describes himself as a “Reaganomics” guy, who likes tax cuts, but is willing to intervene in the free market to stop Wall Street firms from failing or keep housing prices from dropping. Gary Johnson smiles and proudly states, “I’m an Austrian at heart.” He is of course referring to the Austrian School of economics, as popularized by economists like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. “By that, I mean that markets should be free. That we should have a strong Dollar. That saving, and not spending, makes the economy grow.”
Gary accuses the Federal Reserve, the chief enemy of Austrian economists who see fractional reserve central banking as the cause of the boom-bust cycle, of “gambling at the highest level,” by putting such risky assets on taxpayers’ backs. He notes that he will soon be visiting the Chicago Federal Reserve bank to be present for the filming of an anti-Fed documentary. He also recounts his recent visit to the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, where he brushed up on Austrian monetary theory.
We spend the latter part of the conversation talking about mountain climbing. He climbed Mt. Everest while still healing after a broken leg, and had a close call with disaster during a white-out snow storm on Mt. Elbrus. The thought comes to my mind: While Gary Johnson and his kids were climbing to the top of the world’s highest peaks, the blogosphere was going wild over Mitt Romney’s campaign video of his family sledding down a slope.
Yet, even though Gary Johnson has been on top of the world, he starts the 2012 presidential race as an underdog, while Mitt Romney is the assumed frontrunner. This didn’t stop Gary before, when he began at two percent in the polls and went on to defeat a former Republican Governor in the gubernatorial primary, and then oust an incumbent Democratic Governor in the general election. But Mitt Romney will be a formidable opponent.
When Johnson and Romney go head-to-head, most likely in the New Hampshire primary, which both Governors have good reason to be hopeful about, they will likely embody the arms of the GOP that got them there. Johnson will represent the Tea Party, Goldwater-libertarian voice of the Republican Party, while Romney will represent the establishment, Reagan-Bush voice of the Republican Party. “The voice of the Republican Party is up for grabs,” Gary notes.
He’s right. While the polite and humble Gary Johnson may not seem like much of a threat to the powerful Mitt Romney at the moment, Romney would be wise not to underestimate Gary. The American people are desperate for real change, and a President Johnson would give them just that. Gary Johnson may just be the Tea Party’s answer to Mitt Romney.