Ex-gov. emerges as next Ron Paul
By: Jonathan Martin
December 17, 2009 04:38 AM EST
Former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson is a teetotaling triathlete who looks the part of the laid back Mountain West politician.
But don’t let the jeans and black mock turtleneck he's sporting on his new website fool you: Johnson is starting to sound like a mad-as-hell populist with an eye cast on 2012 and the building fury aimed at Washington.
“I’m finding myself really angry over spending and the deficit,” he said in an interview with POLITICO this week. “I’m finding myself really angry over what’s happening in the Middle East, the decision to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. I’m angry about cap-and- trade. And I’ve been on record for a long time on the failed war on drugs.”
Is that enough to design a presidential campaign around? It might be, at a time of tea parties, rage at bail outs, job loss and general voter discontent. And there is plainly an opportunity for some politician to harness the anti-establishment, populist grassroots fervor that is right-leaning but untethered to any party at the moment.
It’s what Ron Paul tried to do in last year’s presidential campaign, but Johnson may better positioned to ride the populist wave than the longtime Texas GOP congressman. For one thing, the anti-establishment energy was not at the fever pitch then that it’s nearing now. And, unlike the unlikely Paul, a 73-year-old who got interested in elected politics when Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard in 1971, Johnson is telegenic, media-savvy and, equally important, has twice been easily elected to statewide office.
A libertarian-leaning Republican, Johnson this month launched “Our America,” a group that aims to draw attention to the principles of limited government at home and non-interventionism abroad.
But as the subtitle on its website indicates, “The Gary Johnson Initiative” is also designed to elevate the profile of the ascetic and unconventional former governor who is known nationally—if at all—for his support of legalizing drugs.
Johnson is doing little to knock down the idea that he may be looking toward a 2012 presidential run.
“Is there room for something a little different?” he replied to a question about whether there was an opportunity for a new GOP voice emphasizing a different approach. “I’d like to think I’m putting that to the test.”
Johnson is extremely cautious in responding to direct questions about his own prospective White House ambitions, citing the legal restrictions on his 501(c)4 group, but he didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d soon be seen in such first-in-the-nation states as Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Yeah, you will,” he said.
So could Johnson be the burgeoning Tea Party movement’s preferred candidate in the next presidential election, the tribune of the disaffected and disgruntled?
He’s certainly on the same page when it comes to the fiscal issues that have galvanized activists. In the interview—and in a high-production-value video on his group’s snazzy website—he touts his small-government record in Santa Fe, where he vetoed 750 bills, which at the time was more than the other 49 governors in the country combined.
And he embraces the outsider spirit of the Tea Party movement, noting that he was a construction business owner before winning election as part of the much-heralded Republican Class of 1994 governors.
“I had a ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ experience as governor,” he said.
But Johnson is no political rube—as he demonstrates by offering the same soundbite-friendly quotes in an interview that he voices in the video, exhibiting the well-honed skills of a new media age pol.
And while he’s an admirer of Tea Party energy–and has actually attended a few rallies himself in New Mexico—he’s cautious about their politics.