Gary Johnson: 2012’s Ron Paul

He's the darkest of dark horses right now, but Gary Johnson stands as the heir apparent to Ron Paul's surprisingly energetic 2008 run for the GOP nomination.

He’s nowhere near being on the A-list of contenders for the 2012 elections, and his positions on issues like drug legalization and the Afghanistan War aren’t entirely within the GOP mainstream, but former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson may be better positioned than anyone else to take up the banner of the fiscally conservative/libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement:

Like Ron Paul, whom he endorsed in 2008, Johnson is an unabashed libertarian-and, in some ways, a purer one (he’s pro-choice, pro-free trade, and pro-immigration). So, while he’s no culture warrior or foreign policy hawk—he opposed the war in Iraq and the troop surge in Afghanistan—he outflanks any Republican on fiscal issues, proposing an immediate, across-the-board 43 percent spending cut. “We’re on the precipice,” he says, of the country’s finances. To illustrate what lies in the abyss, at times he flashes his favorite prop: a $100 trillion bill from Zimbabwe that he keeps in his wallet.

Over the past ten months, Johnson has taken his libertarian gospel on the road, speaking to conservative campus groups, Tea Party rallies, and Republican conferences in over 30 states. He has appeared on countless radio and TV programs—everything from “Hannity” to “The Colbert Report”—and is putting the finishing touches on a book. Johnson isn’t merely testing the presidential waters; several Johnson confidants told me that nothing—not even another Ron Paul campaign—will stop him from running. “There’s no waiting or seeing,” says one. “It’s a done deal.”

Moreover, while Paul has left open the possibility that he might run again himself, he’s also made clear that there really is only one heir apparent to the Ron Paul “r3volution” of 2008:

“Everybody’s been aware of it, even during the last campaign,” says Paul, whom Johnson informed of his intentions in April 2008. “I don’t remember when anybody didn’t assume that he would run for president.” Fortunately for Johnson, Paul, while not ruling out a second act, has shown little appetite for one. (“I have made no plans,” he told me.) And if he doesn’t run, he’ll “most likely” throw his weight behind Johnson. “I can’t imagine endorsing anybody else,” he says. The path, then, looks clear for Gary Johnson to become the Ron Paul of 2012

The differences, though, are two-fold. For one thing, Johnson doesn’t come with some of the baggage that Ron Paul did in 2008. There are no political polemics with controversial statements, or associations with people who’ve gone on to become advocates of odd conspiracy theories, in Johnson’s past. For another, the Republican Party of 2012 will clearly be far more receptive to the libertarian-ish positions that Johnson espouses than it was in 2008. Despite his fundraising successes and the fact that he was attracting enthusiastic support on college campuses, it was easy for the rest of the GOP to ignore Ron Paul in 2008 and dismiss him in the manner that pundits like Sean Hannity did. Even in a crowded field of candidates, it won’t be so easy to dismiss Gary Johnson.

That doesn’t mean that Johnson isn’t going to stir things up, of course. He favors drug legalization and opposes the Afghanistan War, for example, and he’s one of the only potential 2012 candidates to express anything other than glowing admiration for Sarah Palin:

What does Johnson make of Palin? On a drive through the foothills of New Hampshire, I ask him. Riding shotgun, he turns the question around on me. “Um, I guess some people think she’s folksy,” I say from the backseat. “Well, at first she strikes you as folksy,” he shoots back. “And then you realize: She might be running for president of the United States! And then, don’t we have the obligation to tell her what a terrible idea that is?” Cupping his hands to his mouth, he brays, “Sarah! We love you! Don’t run!” He also performs a rendition of the “deer-in-the-headlights” interview she did on “The O’Reilly Factor,” about the BP oil spill.

That willingness to be outspoken, however, is likely to work to Johnson’s benefit once he throws his hat in the ring. He’ll be operating on a shoe-string budget in the beginning, most likely, but he’s also likely to get plenty of free media attention on outlets on MSNBC which like to give air time to iconoclastic Republicans (Rand Paul was a frequent guest on Rachel Maddow’s show during his primary battle, for example).

Were I a betting man, I wouldn’t be placing any money on Johnson to win the nomination right now. However, he’s an interesting guy who has the potential to stir up the GOP race, especially if he says stuff like this:

After trashing Palin on our drive through New Hampshire, Johnson spots a cop car in the rearview mirror. The chauffeur, Johnson adviser Ronald Nielson, pulls the rented Mazda SUV to the side of the road, and the green-clad officer ambles over. “I stopped you because you were going eighty-three in a sixty-five,” he says, peppering the driver with questions. As he disappears with Nielson’s license and registration, Johnson scolds himself for forgetting his Valentine One radar detector. “You can’t seriously speed without a Valentine One,” he tells us. “The Valentine would’ve sniffed him out long before that happened.” The officer returns two minutes later, and the roadside ritual ends anticlimactically. “I’m letting you off with a warning,” he says. “Don’t ask me why.”

As we drive off, Johnson breathes a sigh of relief, floating theories about the merciful cop. But the close call sends him into a lighthearted rant on the absurdity of federally mandated speed limits. “Look,” he says, “there are times and places where it would be perfectly safe to go one-forty, and there are others where it would be reckless to go fifty-five.” Within moments, he’s taking aim at stop signs and red lights. “I’m not opposed to the concept,” he allows. “But sometimes, you know, it’s 5:30 in the morning! There’s nobody on the road!” Johnson laughs, turns in his seat, and fixes me with a grin. “That’s the first sign you know you’re a libertarian,” he says. “You see the red light. You stop. You realize that there’s not a car in sight. And you put your foot on the gas.”

It strikes me that there a lot of people like that in America who might like what Johnson has to say.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jay says:

    The fact that he is a Governor gives him a leg up. People keep talking about John Thune and are already hyping Marco Rubio, but that executive experience is always seen in a better light than merely legislative experience.

  2. Blonduxo says:

    Dr. Ron Paul is 2012’s Dr.Ron Paul.

    Gary has plenty of time to run for POTUS. BTW couldn’t you find an even dorkier picture of him?

    Interesting guy-had a drink with him when he was in Seattle a few months ago. He enthralled us ladies though some of his positions did not jell at all with us- and we all supporters of Campaign for Liberty…hmmm.

  3. reid says:

    He was my governor for awhile and I did shake his hand way back when. He’s a likable guy and seems more principled/less political than your average Republican, but he also seems like a bit of a lightweight. We are in the Palin era, though, so that shouldn’t stop him. He and Christie may be the best of a bad lot.

  4. mantis says:

    2012’s Ron Paul? Sounds like an insult to Johnson. He’s the real deal. Paul’s a joke.

    I would strongly consider voting for Johnson if he ran. I wish he’d move to Illinois and run for governor here.

  5. Liz says:

    I am so happy to be seeing Governor Johnson around more! He is my ideal candidate for 2012 and I feel like he could really turn our country around. He doesn’t like to B.S. and he just tells it how it is. He is consistent and smart and I like him! Johnson 2012!

  6. SJ Reidhead says:

    I live in NM, voted for Gary Johnson his second term (after I moved here). He was a good governor.

    The man is honest. He’s quirky, but he is honest.

    I wouldn’t vote for him in a primary. He did leave the state with money in the bank, which Big Bill has thrown away on everything.

    The difference is that Big Bill uses private planes. Johnson rode his bicycle!

    The Pink Flamingo

  7. anirprof says:

    There is one huge problem: Johnson is PRO CHOICE on abortion.

    The big exception in Ron Paul’s libertarianism is that he is strongly pro-life, and yes, wants the state involved in preventing abortions (i.e., having them be illegal). Johnson is openly pro-choice.

    Take a look at the polls of GOP primary voters and tell me a pro-choice candidate has a shot. Even take a look at polls of self-identified Tea Party supporters. For all the talk of them being libertarian, they are pretty conventional Republican voters on social issues. Most national polls show self-identified Tea Partiers as being about 65-70% in favor of making abortion illegal. More anecdotally, show me any ‘Tea Party’ candidate for Senate or Congress who was pro-choice this fall. How about the GOP vetoing their own Presidential nominee’s VP choice in 2008 (i.e., preventing McCain from choosing Lieberman). Or the fate of Rudy Gulianani.

    Yes, I know you are arguing that the GOP will be more open to libertarians in ’12 than ’08, but on abortion there are about a million miles to go before they would accept a pro-choice candidate. In fact, while polls show GOP voters becoming more socially liberal on gay rights, pot legalization, and some other issues, that is NOT true on abortion — attitudes on abortion are not liberalizing.

  8. wr says:

    Yes, what we need is a president who thinks that stopping at red lights should be a matter of individual conscience. It’s the kind of thing that sounds great if you happen to be in the New Mexico countryside — and shows a complete lack of understanding of what it means to live in the kind of complex society most of us live in. It’s easy to be a libertarian when there are 20 people per sqaure mile.

  9. steve says:

    Pro-Choice AND anti-war. That cuts against two core Republican values. No way he wins. He will be a useful idiot and no more.


  10. Chiodo says:

    wr, you fool. If you bothered to read the original article, you would know that he doesn’t advocate speeding down freeways like the 605 at 5:30 in the evening. Libertarianism is pretty consistent in that regard: do whatever you like as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.

    Hmm. Simple. Has a nice ring to it.

    Liberals and conservatives are, on the other hand, absolutists.

  11. wr says:

    Yes, Chiodo, I am an absolutist about some things… like stop lights. And my point was that a libertarian believes — and you confirm — that it is up to the individual to decide if the conditions are sufficiently safe to run a light or speed down the 605. Which might make sense in rural New Mexico, but can’t work when you’ve got 10 million people all crammed together in a small area — because not everyone is as wise as the ideal libertarian.

    On the other hand, are you one of the animator Chiodo Brothers? Because if so, we tried to sell a show together once. Which just goes to show there’s more to life than political philosophy.

  12. DWL says:

    @wr – Apparently, you haven’t visited Germany where drivers determine the speed limit on many roads and there are fewer automobile-related deaths. You need to give the human race a little more credit.

    Back to Johnson – His pro-choice views will not fly if he wants to run under the GOP banner. His comments about telling your kids smoking marijuana is fun, but don’t do it, together with the fact that he admits to smoking it, will come back to haunt him early in the game.

  13. wr says:

    DWL — I have spent time in Germany. And if we were Germans, maybe we could have such a system. The German culture is one that honors rules and laws, and places order above the cult of the individual. You might have noticed, we’re not like that. And those who are most likely to push for abolishing speed limits — the libertarians — are the least like that.

  14. DoDoGuRu says:

    “Ron Paul’s surprisingly energetic 2008 run for the GOP nomination.”

    Ron Paul seemed energetic because everyone else was completely anemic.