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Libertarian Gary Johnson comes to town

The presidential candidate was in Minneapolis to raise money and explain some miracles.

Gary Johnson

Presidential candidate Gary Johnson was in Minneapolis Thursday to raise a little money and explain some miracles.

In case you lost track of him, Johnson started the year running for the Repub nomination, got left out of most of the debates (he claims the networks were unfair to him but declined to say what motivated them), made an impression in the one debate he got into with a joke about how his dog created more “shovel-ready” projects than President Obama has, but has now switched to seeking the Libertarian Party nomination and says he has won every contest on the path to that nomination.

Johnson, 59, was a two-term governor of New Mexico. He ran as a Republican with libertarian leanings (he cut the growth rate of state spending but also advocated decriminalization of marijuana, which is not a normal Republican thing to do). He actually makes a much better Libertarian because his social issue positions are way too far left for today’s Repubs and his fiscal ideas are way too far right for Dems. As illustrated by this quote from our conversation:

“I’m the only candidate who can advocate for gay rights and gun rights in the same sentence. I’m the only one who denounces war spending and welfare spending at the same time.”

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Johnson’s platform is full of thunderbolt policies. He proposes a 43 percent reduction in federal spending, which he says would trim (well, this ain’t no “trim”) $1.4 trillion a year. He chose 43 percent because, he says, that’s what it would take to wipe out the deficit and immediately balance the budget.

The big three cost-drivers — Medicare, Medicaid and military spending — would each get a 43 percent haircut. How do you cut 43 percent from Medicare and Medicaid? Pretty simple. You figure out each state’s current share of the spending, cut it by 43 percent, block grant the remaining amount to each of the 50 states and let them apply that amount as best they can to the health care of the “truly needy.”

Johnson won’t tell them how to do it. He subscribes to the poetry, or do I mean fantasy, or do I mean science experiment, of the states serving as 50 laboratories to find the best way to get it done. Get rid of fee-for-service and go to a health maintenance organization model, he suggests, which is what he says he did with New Mexico’s public health programs.

If it occurs to you that the current Medicare program covers all seniors, not just the “truly needy,” Johnson stands his ground. Old people who are not poor may just have to pay for their own health care.

If that sounds like a radical reduction in health spending, Johnson says that’s better than the perpetual deficit spending path we’re on now, which will produce a “total monetary collapse,” and then we’ll have “no health care at all.”

Johnson says that Social Security doesn’t represent the same existential threat that the big health programs do, because it doesn’t have the same explosive growth rate. All he wants to do to Social Security is raise the age for benefits, tie the initial benefits to a lower escalator and allow people to opt out of the system.

War spending

Johnson goes out of his way to avoid using the term “defense spending” the way it is used in Washington. He’s all in favor of defending the country, but wants to discontinue spending on “offense” and “nation building” projects, which is how the military spends a great chunk of the misnamed “defense” money.

Johnson sounds like he is open to closing pretty much all of the permanent U.S. military bases, like those in Europe, but if closing them completely isn’t necessary, surely cutting them by the magic 43 percent would not render the United States terribly vulnerable to attack, Johnson says.

We never should have started the war with Iraq, Johnson says (and said so at the time). The invasion of  Afghanistan was justified after 9/11 to drive Al Qaida out of its bases, Johnson said, “but that was ‘Mission Accomplished’ after the first six months and we should have been out of there” long ago.

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Johnson also believes that the government could save some money by maintaining fewer nuclear weapons. “Do we really need to be able to blow up the planet 10 times over?” he asked, quite reasonably in my opinion.

Oh yeah, foreign aid. It’s not a big number in the context of federal spending, but Johnson considers it “crazy” for the government to borrow money to give away to other countries. That would be zero dollars a year in the Johnson administration. Likewise the federal departments of Education, Homeland Security and HUD  —  maybe Commerce, too, but that’s not for sure.

In case you wonder whether President Johnson could get any of these things through Congress, he’s anxious to remind you that “when I was governor, I believe I vetoed more bills than all the rest of the governors in the country put together.”

The magical tax

Johnson’s tax policy would be more radical than his spending policies. He favors the national sales tax that backers modestly call the “Fair Tax.” It’s 23 percent on everything you buy, which might sound like a lot but hold on. It would replace all income taxes (poof, the IRS goes out of business), plus FICA payroll (both the employer and the employee’s share) plus, if I heard him right, every other tax that the federal government now levies (estate tax, corporate taxes, excise taxes, capital gains taxes, everything).

And, because sales taxes are inherently regressive, the Fair Tax also includes a “prebate” feature under which everyone would get a check from the government at the beginning of every month that would “preimburse” them, in advance, for the amount that a poor person would pay in “fair tax” taxes that month for necessities.  So the poor person (or family) ends up paying no federal taxes of any kind and the unpoor among us get a significant discount on what the Fair Tax would otherwise cost us.

If you are thinking this is too good to be true, well, I admit I share your concern. But, according to Johnson, it’s even better. This last part is where I had the most trouble suspending disbelief:

Because businesses will be excused from so many of the currently existing taxes, which they now must pass along to you as part of the price of what they sell you, the price of goods and services will decline significantly to the point at which, even after you add on the new 23 percent Fair Tax, they won’t cost you any more than they did before.

The Fair Tax will raise as much as all federal taxes now raise. It is “revenue neutral.” So the government can do all the things it does now (minus the cuts that are necessary to eliminate the deficit). And for you, it’s sort of for free — because all of your other taxes will go away and yet prices of the things you buy will stay about the same.

At this point in our interview I said to Johnson: If this would work the way you say it would, it would be criminally stupid not to do it. He didn’t laugh, nor did he express any particular skepticism that it would indeed work this way.

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The miracle election

To bring about the miracle described above, Johnson will have to be elected president (I suppose someone else could do it, but this post is about Johnson’s candidacy). And he will have to be elected without being the nominee of either of the two parties that have provided all of the successful presidential candidates since Zachary Taylor (a Whig) won the election of 1848.

Johnson acknowledged to me that this is a “pie-in-the-sky scenario,” and guessed that odds makers would list him as a 100 to one shot.

He does feel confident that he can win the Libertarian nomination. The Libertarian Party has done a much better job than most minor parties at getting their nominee on the presidential ballot since 1976, but they’ve only cracked the 1 percent mark (of the popular vote) once in that time (and that time, barely, with 1.1. percent in 1980. (That year, David Koch, one of the wealthy Koch brothers, was the running mate on the ticket.)

Johnson believes it is also possible that he will be the nominee of the novel movement called Americans Elect, a well-funded initiative with several high-powered supporters. Americans Elect is working to secure a spot on ballots across the country and plans to award its nomination via an online virtual convention to a ticket comprising a presidential and vice presidential candidate from two different parties.

The online voting has already begun and Johnson is currently running in sixth place. But none of the five individuals currently ahead of him on the list have said that they will accept the honor and most of them surely will not. (President Obama, for example, is currently in fourth place but will almost certainly not accept the Americans Elect conditions.) Johnson has not declared himself a candidate for the Americans Elect nomination, but he is clearly open to the idea if he can solve the running-mate problem.

This could get tricky. The Libertarian nominating convention is set for May 4. The Americans Elect process is supposed to produce a ticket on May 8. If the Libertarians nominate Johnson, plus another Libertarian as his running-mate, Americans elect might not accept the deal. If he ends up being listed twice on some state ballots with two different running mates, it will be a mess.

Johnson implied to me, without being too concrete, that he might ask the Libs to nominate as his running-mate someone who is sufficiently identified with a sufficiently different party that the ticket could be accepted from Americans Elect as meeting their two-parties-on-the-ticket. OK, enough on that. I thought the dilemma was strange but interesting at the time.

Then, the pie-in-the-sky scenario requires that Johnson be polling above 15 percent against the major party nominees (who knows?) at the key moment when such a polling level would entitle him to be included in the nationally televised debates. Hey, it happened with Ross Perot in 1992.

Johnson mentioned that if, as seems likely, Ron Paul is not the Repub nominee and Paul is not the nominee of Americans Elect (Paul, who currently leads in the Americans Elect voting, has said that he has no “plans” or “intentions” to run on their ticket), he, Johnson ,might attract a lot of support from disaffected Ron Paul supporters.

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If, if, if. But, said Johnson, “If I get on the debate stage [with, presumably, Obama and Mitt Romney], all bets are off.”