Count another one in. Gary Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, is launching his new Our America PAC, an obvious stepping stone to launching a run for president. Next time around, the “Ron Paul revolution” will have a new candidate, one that will promise sweeping libertarian change and that has executive experience and a persona more marketable than the squeaky-voiced self-proclaimed “defender of the Constitution.”
In many ways, Johnson makes for an obvious Republican presidential candidate. He was reelected as the governor of a swing state that tends to vote Democratic and the press gave him the middle name of “Veto” for his constant rejection of legislation. He slashed government and left office in 2003 with a surplus without raising taxes.
Johnson wouldn’t be a “change” candidate if he didn’t ruffle a few feathers. He openly talks about his pothead past and has defined himself by calling for an end to the war on drugs, a position that speaks to advocates of limited government but alienates social conservatives; he also endorsed Ron Paul during the last presidential election cycle. He opposes the Iraq war and hasn’t given a public position on the war in Afghanistan. He’s even suggested legalizing prostitution. These positions mean he can’t win the Republican nomination, but that doesn’t mean he can’t become a significant force in the race or spark an intellectual battle inside the Republican Party as the libertarian element gains in popularity and coverage.
It would be a big mistake to assume Johnson has limited appeal and can only hope to poll in the single digits. Never underestimate the power of college kids who want pot legalized. I’ve seen political science classes erupt into a furor when the topic is mentioned, with students who previously could have passed for a corpse suddenly becoming passionate policy experts, throwing out statistics and eloquent arguments. Their lungs may contain so much smoke that they get high every time they exhale, but their votes count just as much as anyone else’s.
Johnson has the capability to activate a very enthusiastic portion of the American public with his libertarian message and the fact that he is simply so different. It is this latter point that is key to understanding Ron Paul’s relative success, considering the hostility to most of his positions and lack of name recognition. People get excited by big change, especially the youth. As a college student, I can tell you that the majority of people my age knew the name Ron Paul when they had no clue who Huckabee, Romney, or most of the other candidates were — and they were Democrats, Republicans, Greens (like I said, college students), and independents.
If he runs for president, you can bet that Johnson will have the impressive grassroots network built by Ron Paul from the get-go, along with additional support from college students who supported Obama but want to move onto the next “change” candidate, and again, those who favor drug legalization, especially of marijuana. Only Huckabee with his endorsement of the FairTax has done a similar job of finding a signature issue that will harness the power of a certain group of activists. Furthermore, Republicans who are very conservative on domestic issues and don’t feel convinced by the authenticity and records of people like Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich, or whoever else will find in Johnson a candidate that can pass most conservative litmus tests. It will be interesting to see how many Republicans (and independents, in the case of Johnson’s likely target: New Hampshire) are willing to overlook their differences with Johnson’s foreign policy to support the candidate advocating the smallest government.
Johnson’s unique stances will save his campaign the time and money of trying to create an image. He will automatically garner a mammoth amount of media coverage that normal campaigns would spend millions of dollars on. He’ll have a devoted group of volunteers that another candidate would have to spend many months winning the hearts of. You may not agree with his positions, but no objective watcher of politics could look at Ron Paul’s campaign and not be impressed with what it achieved, and there is reason to expect more from Johnson.
The discussion of Johnson’s and Paul’s campaigns goes beyond 2012, though. Johnson’s entry into the race may start a tradition where each Republican contest for the presidential nomination will include a more libertarian, Paul-like candidate. If this is the case, then that means that internal Republican Party politics are changing and you’ll see a libertarian segment gain more traction. Today’s “conservative” would become “moderate,” and today’s “moderate” would become “left-wing” by comparison. The effects of such a libertarian gain are too far-reaching to be discussed in this article, but it is worth pondering as Johnson prepares for 2012.
Johnson is still a long shot to win the Republican nomination, even if he has assets that give him an advantage that Ron Paul lacked in the last contest. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a decisive factor, politically and intellectually, and it doesn’t mean he won’t have more of a long-term effect than the other failed candidates. Ron Paul has passed the torch to Gary Johnson. How far can he carry it? The next cycle will determine whether the “Ron Paul revolution” was a temporary fad fueled by those wanting to attach themselves to something alternative, or whether it is a force that is here to stay.