Potential GOP 2012 Candidate Gary Johnson Still a Freewheeler
Around the State
With buzz increasing that he will launch a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson showed up in Tallahassee Thursday night still touting the trademark libertarian social issues -- legalization of marijuana, for one -- that put him in the minority of the GOP.
Speaking to the Florida State University chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty, Johnson made a point of expounding on fiscally conservative principles, the need to repeal the new federal health care overhaul and the urgency of cutting spending to reduce the deficit.
"I don't think the health care system is anywhere near a free market kind of system," Johnson said.
In calling for the repeal of the Affordable Health-Care Act, however, Johnson also showed his tendency and willingness to buck his party and chide Republicans for increasing spending and enlarging government.
"(The Republicans') No. 1 priority should be the repeal of health care but also, in the spirit of bipartisanship, the prescription drug benefit," Johnson said, referring to the legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2003 that created a prescription drug "entitlement" for Medicare recipients and dramatically increased spending.
The Republicans' first act in the lame-duck session of Congress Thursday -- a procedural vote to defund National Public Radio -- also did not impress Johnson, who stated that while it was important to cut spending, Republicans were elected in the midterms to tackle bigger problems like cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The founder of one of the largest construction companies in New Mexico, who regularly competes in triathlons, Johnson made his political debut in 1994, routing incumbent Democratic Gov. Bruce King by 10 percent. Winning a second term in 1998, Johnson bowed out from politics in 2002.
During his two terms, Johnson focused on pushing tax cuts and lowering government spending. Johnson also pushed for school choice, including backing the idea of sending $3,500 to parents wanting to send children to private schools. Johnson gained a good deal of media attention in 1999 when he called for the decriminalization of marijuana and took aim at American drug policy, arguing that the war on drugs was a failure.
"Ninety percent of the drug problem is prohibition related, and that's not to diminish the problem of drug use," he said, noting that 800,000 people are arrested for nonviolent drug offenses every year.
"Marijuana is a lot safer than alcohol, and I'm probably not telling you anything that you don't already recognize," Johnson told the packed classroom.
Since his two terms in office, Johnson has remained on the political sidelines, though he won some media attention when he climbed Mount Everest in 2003. Emerging in 2008, Johnson was one of the few prominent Republicans holding office to back U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Paul, like the former New Mexico governor, opposed the war in Iraq.
Johnson also argued that an injection of free market principles to the education system is just what it needs -- competition leading to innovation and students who perform better. But there is one big step to take in that direction, he said.
"The best thing that can be done is to abolish the Department of Education," Johnson said, to the laughter and applause of the students.
Following the 2008 elections, Johnson formed Our America Initiative to fight for limited government and restoring civil liberties. That organization's status as a 501c4 precludes Johnson from speaking out on specific campaigns, although having vetoed over 1,000 bills and budget line items as governor, he's no fan of that law either.
"As part of my legal status I can't talk about running for any office of any kind. But I would have vetoed that law too," he said.
If Johnson chooses to run for the Republican presidential nomination, he will face a potentially crowded field. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich lead most polls. Other possible candidates include Paul, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, former New York Gov. George Pataki and businessman Herman Cain.