American businessman Gary Johnson, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, served two terms as governor of New Mexico, from 1995 to 2003. The 58-year-old North Dakota native, whose mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and whose father was a public school teacher, is best known for having vetoed over 750 bills during his tenure as governor, more than all other 49 governors combined, earning him the nickname “Governor Veto.”
In a state with 2 to 1 Democrat voter registration, he cut the rate of government growth in half and oversaw the elimination of the state’s budget deficit without once raising taxes. In fact, Johnson cut taxes 14 times as governor, and by the time he left after term limits forced him out of office, New Mexico was one of only four states with a balanced budget. Additionally, he pushed school choice reform, which the New York Times described as “the most ambitious voucher program in the country.” In 1999, Gov. Johnson became the highest-ranking public official to speak out against America’s so-called war on drugs, arguing that prohibition of marijuana in particular is the chief cause of violence along the U.S.’s southern border. He favors a reassessment of the nation’s drug laws, and he recently endorsed Proposition 19, California’s campaign to legalize marijuana in the state.
Working his way through college as a handyman, Gary Johnson later founded one of the largest construction companies in New Mexico, with over 1,000 employees. The athlete and outdoorsman is an avid skier, cyclist, and mountain climber and he has reached the top of Mt. Everest, which he climbed with a partially broken leg. The divorced father, who announced his candidacy for president in Concord, New Hampshire, earlier this year, spoke with me during a nine-day swing through the Granite State.
Scott Holleran: You told the Wall Street Journal last year that you support means testing for Medicare and Social Security, for which you said you would raise the eligibility age. In what specific ways would you cut entitlement programs to balance the budget?
Gary Johnson: Specifically, and this is waving the magic wand, because I recognize that there are three branches of government, I would have the federal government cut Medicare and Medicaid by 43 percent and block grant the programs [to the states] with no strings. Instead of giving the states one dollar—and it’s not really giving because there are strings attached—the federal government needs to give the states 57 cents, take away the strings and give the states carte blanche for how to give health care to the poor. I reformed Medicaid as governor of New Mexico and, in that context, even with strings attached, I believe I could have delivered health care to the poor. I believe I could have done the same thing with Medicare. Also, I would cut military spending by 43 percent believing that we can provide a strong national defense as opposed to what I would call an offense and nation building. I would cut Social Security by raising the retirement age and have common sense means testing that’s fair. I would scrap the entire federal tax system and replace it with the fair tax—a one time consumption tax, with no more Medicare and unemployment payroll deductions—so we’d have one national consumption tax to replace all federal taxes, abolishing the IRS.
Scott Holleran: Which programs will you terminate?
Gary Johnson: There are currently two that I advocate abolishing: the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Scott Holleran: Do you favor a balanced budget amendment?
Gary Johnson: I do—but the problem is that passing balanced budgets for future years is what we do and it takes away the immediate problem and kicks it down the road.
Scott Holleran: Is it your position that we should audit, not end, the Federal Reserve—that ending the Fed may be desirable but not immediately realistic?
Gary Johnson: I think ending the Federal Reserve would be positive but if we end the Fed it’s important to point out that that’s not the end of the solution. A lot of the central banking function would have to be taken up by regional banks.
Scott Holleran: Will you issue an executive order to repeal ObamaCare as unconstitutional?
Gary Johnson: Yes, if it’s possible. I would do the same for [President Bush’s Medicare] prescription [drug subsidies]. Two parties can take responsibility for where we’re at right now.
Scott Holleran: You’ve said that you would not have raised the debt ceiling and that it would have still been possible to avoid default. How?
Gary Johnson: I believe that we would have still brought in $200 billion a month and [control] how we make payments and whether we default on any bills. But obviously going forward, we have to put the brakes on spending. I just argue that it will never be easier than now. In the bond market, if no one was buying our debt, that would mean the Federal Reserve printing money as opposed to individuals or countries loaning us money; that’s the bond market collapsing—so when that happens, that is a whole lot of money and it has to result in inflation. Russia is the most recent example. As frightening as that scenario is, that’s what going to happen. But we can fix this—there’s going to be a lot of hardship and pain, but that’s better than killing the patient and, the way we’re going, we’re going to kill the patient in a monetary collapse. But I am an optimist because I think it can be fixed.
Scott Holleran: You write that “[m]aintaining a strong national defense is the most basic of the federal government’s responsibilities. However, building schools, roads, and hospitals in other countries are not among those basic obligations. Yet that is exactly what we have been doing for much of the past 10 years.” Do you oppose current U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya and, if so, on what moral grounds?
Gary Johnson: I do. In all three cases, I don’t see a military threat. I initially thought the intervention in Afghanistan was warranted—we were attacked and we attacked back—but we’ve wiped out Al Qaeda and here we are; we’re still there.
Scott Holleran: Isn’t there evidence that we merely drove Al Qaeda from Afghanistan into Pakistan?
Gary Johnson: Sure.
Scott Holleran: Each of those interventions was partially and eventually justified by the morality of altruism—with helping others as the primary purpose—not on the principle that our nation’s self-interest comes first. Which one is your criteria for foreign policy?
Gary Johnson: I think we should act in our self-interest. As I understand it, I think Eisenhower was a pretty good role model for that. Morally, you can justify almost anything we do by saying that we’re doing it for the sake of others. I would point to past realities that have unintended consequences. For example, by taking out [the secular regime in] Iraq, we removed a threat to [religious totalitarian regime] Iran—by the way, I don’t think Iran’s a military threat, though it might prove to be, but we [have the military capacity to] deal with that threat.
Scott Holleran: It’s a fact that Iran in several instances has stated its intention to destroy the United States, which Iran calls “the Great Satan.” If, as president, you had information that Iran was preparing an attack—either through sponsorship of terrorism or by nuclear strike against one of our military bases or cities—how would you respond?
Gary Johnson: I’d meet with the military experts and ask a lot of questions. We have airborne lasers that can knock out incoming missiles in the launch phase.
Scott Holleran: You state that “[n]o criminal or terrorist suspect captured by the U.S. should be subject to physical or psychological torture.” On what moral grounds should our government be precluded from using torture to protect our nation from foreign enemies that seek to destroy the United States through subversive terrorist activity?
Gary Johnson: I just think that there’s no end to that. Let’s say we know there’s a bomb ticking, so we have to torture this guy—that’s the argument for the death penalty—but the law that gets written also is public policy which allows us to put someone who’s innocent to death. The basis of our country is that we protect the innocent. Are we going to torture people to prevent nuclear briefcase bombs? It amounts to the ends justify the means.
Scott Holleran: You oppose the death penalty. Why?
Gary Johnson: As governor of New Mexico, I was a bit naïve and I did not think the government made mistakes with regard to the death penalty. I came to realize that they do. I don’t want to put one innocent person to death to punish 99 who are guilty.
Scott Holleran: You propose to let the so-called Patriot Act—which arguably violates individual rights—expire, yet you have not said you would abolish the invasive TSA, which arguably violates the Constitutional right to travel. Why not abolish the TSA?
Gary Johnson: I would abolish the TSA.
Scott Holleran: Do you support separation of religion and state?
Gary Johnson: Yes.
Scott Holleran: You oppose gay marriage, though you favor civil unions. Why?
Gary Johnson: I wouldn’t say I oppose gay marriage as a matter of public policy. The government shouldn’t be in the marriage business. I would not be opposed to belonging to a church that supports gay marriage.
Scott Holleran: You claim to advocate capitalism. So, who in America is your favorite businessman?
Gary Johnson: [Pauses, thinking] My favorite businessman. [Apple founder] Steve Jobs comes to mind—he represents incredible innovation. Maybe Bill Gates. I didn’t have any business heroes growing up. One of the realities of my life is that those I thought were heroes were not.
Scott Holleran: Who is your favorite political philosopher?
Gary Johnson: [Chicago economist and Free to Choose author] Milton Friedman.
Scott Holleran: Do you favor nuclear power?
Gary Johnson: Yes.
Scott Holleran: If Ron Paul ran as an independent or third party candidate for the presidency, would you support the Republican nominee?
Gary Johnson: Not necessarily.
Scott Holleran: You refused the Libertarian Party nomination in 2000. Why?
Gary Johnson: I refused to run as a Libertarian. I don’t see myself getting elected as a Libertarian Party or independent candidate.
Scott Holleran: You endorsed Ron Paul in 2008 for president. Why?
Gary Johnson: I thought he was saying the things I was.
Scott Holleran: You told a libertarian publication that you disagree with Ron Paul on aid to Israel; that you think “it’s important to distinguish between foreign aid and foreign alliances” and support an alliance with Israel. But you agree with Ron Paul that Iran—a religious totalitarian regime that sponsors Islamic terrorism and has threatened to wipe out the United States—is not a threat. Do you share Ron Paul’s view on foreign policy?
Gary Johnson: I’m not sure I can say whether I support or oppose Ron Paul’s positions because I am not completely versed in them. I think Israel is an important military ally and I support that alliance. I think Iran gets dealt with by Israel, which is likely to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I think it’s wrong for our government to presume to tell Israel what to do.
Scott Holleran: Are you aware that Ron Paul is anti-abortion?
Gary Johnson: Yes.
Scott Holleran: With Congressman Paul denouncing a woman’s right to an abortion, and Mitt Romney emphasizing his newly proclaimed support for capitalism, are you more likely to gain support from Romney supporters than from Ron Paul supporters?
Gary Johnson: I don’t know. I support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
Scott Holleran: On April 21, 2011, you announced via Twitter that you were running for president. You followed the announcement with a speech at the New Hampshire state house in Concord, New Hampshire. Why is New Hampshire at the forefront of your campaign?
Gary Johnson: I am being outspent over 300 to one in this race—I’m not complaining about it—so New Hampshire is a place where I can come out as a top tier candidate.
Scott Holleran: Do you support mandated government nutrition labels, such as calorie counts, on all foods?
Gary Johnson: Yes—I think that’s a good idea. It’s just labeling food we consume so we can make intelligent choices.
Scott Holleran: Do you support First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign?
Gary Johnson: Yes, I think it’s terrific.
Scott Holleran: Wearing combat boots and a 35-pound backpack, you completed the Bataan Memorial Death March, commemorating Japan’s historic death march during World War 2. Why was that important to you?
Gary Johnson: For one thing, I’m an athlete and I love doing athletic competitions and it was a commemorative event, so the Bataan Memorial Death March accomplished two important things at once.
Scott Holleran: You’ve been injured with frostbite, bone fractures and a broken knee while mountain climbing, skiing, and paragliding. Are you a thrillseeker and will you continue these extreme sports during your presidency?
Gary Johnson: I like to think I live a full life. I wouldn’t say I’m a thrillseeker, I would say I like to have fun. Yes, I’m going to continue my adventures as president.
Scott Holleran: What criteria do you seek in a vice-presidential running mate?
Gary Johnson: Compatibility first. Also, support, and the notion that he could be president and best carry on my vision.
Scott Holleran: Why is The Fountainhead your favorite novel?
Gary Johnson: I think Ayn Rand put into words that the best thing I can do for my fellow citizen is to be the best I can be. I think that’s how I can impact other people’s lives—not by having government give to them but by being my best and leading by example.
Scott Holleran: Have you read all of her novels?
Gary Johnson: No. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
Scott Holleran: Do you agree with Rand’s philosophy?
Gary Johnson: Yes, I do.
Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about movies. According to your Facebook fan page, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of your favorite movies. Why?
Gary Johnson: I enjoyed it very much when I saw it. I also like Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. Doctor Zhivago is my all-time favorite film. The scene where Dr. Zhivago [played by Omar Sharif] comes back to his house in Moscow after the [Communist] revolution to find all these strangers living in his home—and the whole love story—is powerful. I think it’s because my great-grandparents emigrated from Russia at the time of the Communist Revolution.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that you built your own home in Taos, New Mexico?
Gary Johnson: Yes—for two and a half years. It’s my dream home in northern New Mexico. Skiing is my biggest passion and it’s as good there as anywhere else on the planet.
Scott Holleran: Why did you sell your construction company?
Gary Johnson: We weren’t getting the work we should have gotten while I was governor. When I sold the company, no one lost their jobs.
Scott Holleran: According to a recent report, most of your donors live in California, which means you could conceivably beat expectations in New Hampshire and gain momentum coming into the California primary. Is that your campaign strategy?
Gary Johnson: It’s a possibility. We could have a breakout.
Scott Holleran: In a sentence, what is the proper role for government?
Gary Johnson: To protect you and I as individuals from harm whether to one’s property or from a foreign government. Government has a role to provide.