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The appeal of not being Trump or Clinton: a Q&A with Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson

“Running as a Libertarian,” says Johnson, “I have the least amount of explaining to do.”

Gary Johnson: "Well, I would not be doing this if there wasn’t the opportunity that I could win, if there wasn’t the idea that I could win."
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

Gary Johnson, former Republican governor of New Mexico, was once a golden boy of the Republican party. In 1994, he defeated an incumbent Democrat in a Democrat-leaning state and was re-elected by a wide margin in 1998. After the GOP’s sharp right-turn on social issues, though, Johnson left the party. He joined the Libertarian Party and in 2012 ran as that party’s candidate for president, winning less than one percent of the vote.

Johnson thinks 2016 will be different. As the Libertarian Party’s likely presidential nominee, he maintains voters are more than ready for a socially moderate, fiscally conservative candidate and a candidate who is not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Johnson explained why in an interview Saturday before his appearance at the Minnesota Libertarian Party convention in Maple Grove, where he took part in a debate with another party presidential candidate, Shawna Sterling.

As Johnson sees it, his positions on limited foreign involvement; limited-to-no government intervention on abortion, gay marriage, and marijuana; the replacement of the income tax with a consumption tax; and his support for immigrants and immigration all fall in line with most American voters today.

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Also, he emphasized, he is not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

MinnPost: Why do you think this could be the year for Libertarian Party to make an impact? 

Gary Johnson: You’ve got what I think are the two most polarizing figures in American politics today – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Trump has to go out and attract 30 percent of the far right, Hillary has to go out and attract 30 percent of the far left, when 50 percent of Americans now are declaring themselves as independent. I think at the end of the day, the two major parties represent 30 percent of the electorate. I think that most people in this country are libertarian. They just don’t know it.

MP: If you are the party’s nominee, what do you have to do be included in the debates? 

GJ: Number one, I’m suing the national debate commission. It’s a rigged game. But outside of that lawsuit … 15 percent is what the presidential debate commission has said is their threshold.

The first time I was in a national poll three weeks ago, against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — this was Monmouth — I was at 11 percent. Any third name would have been at 11 percent but there is a legitimacy of having my name as the third name because the Libertarian nominee for president will be the only third party on the ballot in all 50 states. Hence the nominee — and you could argue that I’m the frontrunner — will be on the ballot in all 50 states. If my name continues to appear in national polls I believe I will be in the presidential debates.

MP: You ran as a GOP nominee in 2012 before turning to the Libertarian party. You fared poorly. What happened here?

GJ: Well in 2012, running for president as a Republican, it was a rigged game. There were only social conservatives on stage. Where was the voice that represented most Republicans? Well, it was me. People would say to me, “Gee, you just didn’t get traction.” Well, that was completely false. The issue for me was that [to be included in the debates], you had to be at two percent in A, B, C and D polls. Well, when you’re not included in the A, B and C polls, that means you have to get eight percent in poll D. That really was a toughie.

MP: Donald Trump is using the word rigged. Does he have a point?

GJ: In this case, yes, he does. Right now most Americans should be asking themselves, “Why do we even have primaries if delegates aren’t committed?” And they are committed for the first ballot, but yeah, it’s a rigged game.

MP: Has Donald Trump given you a special opening more than Hillary Clinton has?

GJ: Well they both have. First of all, having been in New Hampshire, having been in the Midwest, what I recognized was that 30 percent of Republican voters believe the scourge of the earth is Mexican immigration, no matter what you tell them.

I was the one that said, “Look, they’re taking jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want. They’re the cream of the crop when it comes to workers. They’re not siphoning off our welfare system. Don’t build a fence. That’s an insane idea.” That’s Trump’s 30 percent. And then on top of that 30 percent, his other 9 points comes from just the pitch I made in New Mexico — “I’ve never been involved in politics before, a really successful business guy, I’m going to apply these same principles to state government. Just watch how well it works.”

And New Mexico is a state that’s two-to-one Democrat. I get re-elected by being a penny pincher. But I never said anything as stupid as deporting 11 million illegal immigrants. Building a fence across the border — crazy. Killing the families of Islamic terrorists? Bringing back water boarding or worse? Free market — but in the next sentence [Trump says] “I’m going to force Apple to make their iPads and iPhones in the United States.” And then the comment the other day about abortion. “Oh yeah, women should be punished.” And then clarifying it by saying doctors should be punished.

That’s a pretty big opening. That’s a pretty darn big opening.

MP: Short of beating the Democratic and Republican nominee in the race for U.S. president, what are your expectations as a candidate?

GJ: Well, I would not be doing this if there wasn’t the opportunity that I could win, if there wasn’t the idea that I could win. But the only way that I could win is to be in the presidential debates, the general election presidential debates. And if that happens, in my opinion, I get to express opinions that people haven’t heard before and I think they make a lot of sense. And I think that most people think that they make a lot of sense, as opposed to Democrats and Republicans who really are stuck to their dogma. Not that Libertarians don’t have their dogma also, but much less so. Running as a Libertarian I have the least amount of explaining to do.