Will GOP Gov's Drug Policy Kill His Presidential Bid?
Gary Johnson, the two-term governor of New Mexico, has a stellar economic record, high popularity ratings and a maverick stance on the drug war. So why has he been shunned by the press?
Earlier this month, when five of the nation's leading Republican candidates convened in New Hampshire for the first official debate of the GOP presidential nomination, one man was notably absent—Gary Johnson, the popular former two-term governor of New Mexico, who happened to be the first Republican to announce his run for the 2012 presidency.
Johnson, who single-handedly built a multimillion-dollar construction business before entering politics, stands out among his Republican competitors in both style and substance: He is soft-spoken, deeply informed and almost professorial in his manner, although he can turn on the charisma when he speaks to audiences about his agenda and the issues that most passionately concern him. He avoids finger pointing and talking trash about President Obama in the usual manner of his fellow Republicans. Nor does he take easy shots at some of the more clownish figures in his party who take up so much oxygen, such as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump—both of whom CNN invited to the debate, despite the fact that Palin is likely not to run at all and that Trump rescinded his run after a few weeks of buffoonish behavior.
The iconoclastic Johnson remains a kind of outcast in the Republican Party, refusing to pander to the evangelicals and the Tea Party, who increasingly control the primaries. As the other candidates tailor their positions and policies to the party's extremists, Johnson continues to go his own way, a strategy that requires the courage of his convictions. A fiscal conservative, who led his state through many tax cuts and budget surpluses, he is also a social libertarian with an ardent commitment to civil liberties, including a woman's right to choose abortion and equal rights for gay people—despite the fact that anti-abortion and anti-gay causes are the bedrock of the right wing culture wars. But what most distinguishes Johnson as a true reformer is his sweeping rejection of the war on drugs, which he has famously dubbed "an expensive bust." He also supports the decriminalization of marijuana, the promotion of harm reduction to control other drugs, and the diversion of funds from law enforcement activity against drugs to a public health approach to addiction.
Johnson is, without question, a serious man and a serious candidate, whose views likely resonate with much of mainstream America. But while CNN and the debate’s other co-sponsor, the Manchester Union Leader, made sure to find room for the non-declared Michele Bachmann and the self-imploding Newt Gingrich at the debate, Johnson was singled out for a snub, a situation that has left him understandably and uncharacteristically angry, charging CNN with picking winners and losers rather than allowing the American people to do so. Asked to explain his absence, a CNN spokesperson said that the debate was restricted only to “serious”candidates, including those whose polling shows that 2% of the electorate supports them. However, CNN admits that Johnson was left out of CNN's own polling.
In order to right this wrong, and to give Johnson a chance to make his case, The Fix asked Editor-at-Large Joe Schrank to talk to Johnson in time to run his interview on the day of the debate. Schrank met with Johnson late last week at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan to discuss modern politics, the legacy of the drug war, and the Governor's prescription for curing America’s addiction ailments.
CNN did not invite you to their debate. Why did they decide to keep you out?
I don’t know. It makes no sense to me! First of all I didn’t crawl out from under a rock to run for President of the United States. I’m a two-term governor of New Mexico. I was very successful at that. I think, fiscally, I was the most conservative governor in the entire country. I think I’m the guy that everybody writes about as who they want running for president of the United States. I really never questioned that I would have a seat at the table in this process and here it is: I don’t have a seat at the table in this process.
Why is that?
I’ve always been a believer in the system. I can’t say. Is it because of my stand on marijuana? I’m appalled by it, I really am. It’s not right. If you were a two-term governor of New York there’s no question you’d be invited to a debate like this. I was governor of New Mexico. That’s where I live. That’s where I serve. Now most of the issues we faced in New Mexico were identical to the issues that people face in New York. So there’s no reason, none, to exclude me from this.
We at The Fix are very interested in your candidacy for president because many of your positions on drug policy are progressive—especially for a member of the Republican Party. For example, you have said that you want to be a reformer who starts a national discussion about the so-called War on Drugs. That is a courageous, if lonely, position to take.
I’m opposed to the drug war, from A through Z. We currently have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, which is the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Many of those prisoners are victims of a public policy that criminalizes behavior that—without condoning the behavior—is a personal choice. As long as people don’t put anyone else in harm’s way, they should be free to make that choice. I’m always pointing out these days that China has four times the population of the U.S. and 1.5 million people behind bars—a Communist authoritarian dictatorship has fewer people in jail than our liberal democracy.
Why is the drug war not part of the national debate—especially with all the talk about the national debt and wasteful government spending?
The amount of money we spend on the drug war—about $70 billion a year, including law enforcement, the courts and the prisons—is simply staggering. From the point of view of any Republican who cares about fiscal responsibility, the drug war ought to have conservatives outraged over the waste of resources. When I was governor of New Mexico, everything was a cost/benefit analysis, and everything was on the table. There were absolutely no sacred cows—meaning issues first, politics last. In that context, the drug war is very consequential given the amount of resources that are going into this that could be redirected toward what I would call real crime—burglary, assault, and other violence.