Gary Johnson Offers Third Choice In 2012 Elections

You might think the presidential race is settled with two candidates. But there's one candidate you might not have heard much about. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson is running for president on the Libertarian Party ticket. Johnson speaks with host Michel Martin about his policies and the challenges he has getting his message heard.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, 40 years after a landmark legislation required that institutions offer equal opportunities for girls and boys, we'll take a look at the way Title 9 has changed sports and other aspects of life in this country. That's coming up.

But first we want to tell you about a candidate for president that you might not have heard much about. Of course, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is still technically the presumptive presidential candidate for the GOP, at least until that becomes official at the Republican National Convention later on this year.

The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, already has its candidate locked down. That would be former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. He's trying to shake up the race between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, and we caught up with him earlier on the campaign trail in Salt Lake City from member station KUER. Welcome, Governor Johnson. Thanks so much for joining us.

GARY JOHNSON: Michel, great to be with you. Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: And I am going to call you Governor, if that's OK, because you served two terms as governor of New Mexico. Now, you were elected as a Republican, and initially you started your run for the presidency as a Republican, but you decided to change to the Libertarian Party. Can you just briefly tell us why?

JOHNSON: You know, I think that the message that I'm delivering is really identical to that of Ron Paul and Ron Paul, being a messenger, this would be coming out of his mouth, I'm the same thing. I'm a messenger here of the whole freedom/liberty agenda and the fact that I don't think Ron Paul's going to be the nominee - that would be by his own admission.

So this message comes to an end, unless I switch parties, become a Libertarian and, yeah, I get to continue this message. And I think it's really important.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about what the message is exactly.

JOHNSON: Well, so using a broad brushstroke, I think Libertarian - most of America are socially accepting and fiscally responsible. I'm in that category. I think, broadly speaking, that's a Libertarian. A Libertarian is going to be somebody who's really strong on civil liberties.

So I'm going to make the claim that I'm stronger than Obama when it comes to civil liberties, and I'm going to make the claim that I'm stronger than Romney when it comes to dollars and cents. So let's not bomb Iran. I would be the only candidate that doesn't want to bomb Iran.

Let's get out of Afghanistan immediately, bring the troops home. Marriage equality - I think that it's a constitutionally guaranteed right. Let's end the drug wars. Let's balance the federal budget and that means reforming the entitlements - Medicaid, Medicare.

And balancing the federal budget means reducing military expenditures by 43 percent, believing that that's probably the biggest threat to our national security is the fact that we cannot continue to borrow and print money to the tune of 43 cents out of every dollar that we're spending.

MARTIN: Now, you actually have a track record on this. As we mentioned, you did serve two terms as governor of New Mexico and you had the chance to put some of these ideas into play. And your record of being aggressive on spending is well known. In fact, didn't they call you - what was it, Mr. Veto? - at some point? What was it? Veto Man?

JOHNSON: Well, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You had a nickname for the number of times you exercised the veto.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Governor Veto.

MARTIN: Governor Veto. Thank you.

JOHNSON: Well, and Michel, I want to point out that Mexico is a state that's two-to-one Democrat. I made a name for myself being a penny pincher and so how in the world did I get reelected to a second term? Well, I'm going to suggest that people really do appreciate good stewardship of tax dollars.

And then in my terms as governor, boy, it was issues first. It was politics last. So I was also really well known for my stand against the war on drugs, believing that we should legalize marijuana. And I think we're actually at a tipping point now in this country where that is going to happen and I think that may happen in Colorado with the initiative on the ballot this fall to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

MARTIN: Why do you think, though, with a record as a strong fiscal conservative, with a record to back it up, which obviously, you know, everyone doesn't agree with and also moving toward the use of vouchers in education to give people more choice in their K-12 selection of schools.

Those are things that are very popular in the Republican Party. Now, why do you think you didn't get more traction in the Republican primary? Is it because of your stances in favor of same sex equality, legalizing marijuana, and of course you're also in favor of abortion rights as well.

I mean, do you think that your stance on social issues just made you un-electable within the Republican Party?

JOHNSON: No. Actually, Michel, what happened was CNN really cast this in stone during the second debate, or the criteria for the second debate which was a CNN debate. They said that I had to be at two percent in A, B, and C polls. Michel, I wasn't in A, B, and C polls. So how do you get into the debate if your name is not even an option in the poll?

And then about 10 months ago, CNN included me, for the first time, in their biweekly poll. And in that poll I was tied with Cain. I was ahead of Huntsman and I was ahead of Santorum. They had a debate coming up in a couple of weeks and we're thinking, OK, this is an issue that's now behind us.

They excluded my name after that poll and never put it on again. So this is manipulation of the electoral process in a way that just goes completely unnoticed. So for me, I'm not in the debates; I'm not even a candidate for president. I mean, that's how it all worked out.

Jesse Ventura is on a book tour right now, and this is completely by surprise, but he's saying the person you need to vote for is Gary Johnson.

MARTIN: Well, for the people who don't remember, Jesse Ventura served a term as governor of Minnesota after an earlier career as a what, pro wrestler?

JOHNSON: Pro wrestler.

MARTIN: Yeah. Pro wrestler. And, you know, was an interesting, sort of, presence on the political scene for a minute there. But I have to go back to the fact that you served two terms as governor. I mean, it's one thing - you know, one term can be exciting like Jesse Ventura. You know, an unusual set of circumstances can result in, you know, somebody being elected for one term.

But then you were reelected by an even wider margin the second time. So you have a track record. I just am wondering why it is that if somebody like Ron Paul can gain traction, you haven't. I'm just puzzled by it.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, I'm giving you the reasons and of course I'm going to shamelessly tout myself here while I'm on your show, but I have been an entrepreneur my entire life. I've also been an athlete my entire life. So I think I have the discipline; I think I have the resume to suggest that I can actually, at least, doggedly pursue the agenda that I'm talking about here.

And I did serve two terms as governor so all these crackpot ideas where, when it came to governing, people of New Mexico - two-to-one Democrat - voted to reelect me.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Libertarian candidate for the presidency, Gary Johnson. He is, as we've mentioned a couple of times, a former two-term governor of New Mexico. Where are you on the ballot, for people who are interested?

JOHNSON: Well, so there are going to be three candidates on the ballot in all 50 states and of course that would be Obama, Romney, and me.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

JOHNSON: So I think that that's also something significant going forward that people perhaps come to recognize and with Ron Paul's campaign coming to an end I hope to get that support because I don't think that it is a lesser vote for me than Ron Paul. But we'll see how all this plays out.

MARTIN: There are other candidates who did manage to achieve kind of some traction for a while. I mean, the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, his campaign was supported very much by a casino executive who found his ideas attractive. I mean, you know, Herman Cain for a time, the former pizza CEO from Godfather Pizza, got support for a time through people who found his campaign attractive.

And also, as we said, Ron Paul. Now, what about you? I mean, you are, you know, personally wealthy. You certainly have a deep enough pocket to kind of keep your campaign going, but what do you think the issue here - I mean, you really think it is a couple of influential media organizations boxed you out or do you think it's an organizational issue? I'm just wondering what...

JOHNSON: No, no. We got boxed out and that had a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, look, I'm a glass half full guy all the time. I'm an optimist and I wouldn't be doing this if anybody else was talking, actually, about what - you know, I think Obama and Romney both are talking about what the problems are. I don't think either of them are talking about the solutions. And then I'm going to argue that I have that resume to suggest that I'm going to actually doggedly pursue the agenda, the fix, if you will.

MARTIN: Well, you're also arguing that you are where many of the American people are, if not most, in the sense of being socially progressive or inclusive or not wanting to have a heavy government imprint in the personal lives of Americans. Let's put it that way. And also being fiscally conservative and also wanting to avoid kind of an aggressive and expansionist kind of American foreign policy. That's your core argument. How do you then create the institutional support to carry that message forward? What's the plan?

JOHNSON: Well, so, Michel, politics - and I'm just going to speak the obvious here - but politics is all about momentum. If you don't have momentum, there's no reason to be doing it. And so, I have terrific momentum. I'm not expecting anybody to recognize that.

Ron Paul was asked a couple of months ago, are you going to drop out of the race? He said: No, I'm not going to drop out of the race. People that are coming out to see me are growing in number, and I think my voice is representative of the largest growing segment of American politics today.

I would just offer up the same, that that is my experience. That the momentum is straight up, I'm not expecting anybody to recognize that. But that's the case. And if it weren't, I wouldn't be doing this. My message is a message that needs to be heard and it needs to be pursued.

MARTIN: But isn't politics the means by which government happens? I mean, if you are unable to create an institutional framework that allows the people who support you to support you in a way that achieves the goal, what's the point?

JOHNSON: Well, the notion here is to win. The notion here is to poll at a high enough level to be in the national debates against Obama and Romney. And if that happens, I want to suggest to you, I could crash and burn or anything could happen, given the sentiment in this country today, which is a rightful sentiment. We're in deep doo-doo and we need to fix this. We need to fix this now.

MARTIN: That was Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. He is the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate. He joined us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah.

And we asked CNN to respond to some of Governor Johnson's complaints about the Republican primary debates. A spokeswoman for CNN says, quote, "CNN established objective criteria to determine which candidates would receive invitations," unquote.

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