In what’s emerged as a standout line in the fifth GOP candidates’ debate last night in Tampa, Florida, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson – making a rare appearance in the televised GOP debates this season – took a potshot at Obama's jobs bill when he said, “My next door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel ready jobs than this president.”
Making his first appearance in a televised GOP debate, the comment lit up the crowd and the Internet and finally gave the Johnson campaign the legitimacy it’s been clamoring for ever since Johnson declared his candidacy for president Last spring.
After the debate, Johnson told Fox News he’d lifted the line from Rush Limbaugh – who later said, “I guess I’ve become show prep for the GOP debates now, too.”
The Johnson comment was but one line fired against Obama during the TK hour debate, which focused on exchanges between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who exchanged sharp exchanges on Perry's controversial view of Social Security and Romney's Massachusetts health care plan.
Johnson, who has been nearly invisible up until now, told The Fiscal Times in an exclusive interview this summer that he was firmly against raising the debt ceiling. “For all the talk of Armageddon,” Johnson said, “the problems we’ll face by not doing so will pale in comparison to what’s down the road. I’m in the camp that believes we're on the verge of financial collapse – it will be the bond market that collapses. And it’ll be due to the fact there’s no repaying $14.3 trillion in debt, given our ongoing deficits, yesterday, today and in the future.”
He also said that he wanted a balanced budget, and would get there by “cutting 43 percent of what we spend. That includes Medicaid, Medicare and military spending, the big there. The biggest threat to our national security is that we continue to spend more than we take in.”
Gary Johnson at a Glance
• Fiscal conservative
• Social liberal (supports decriminalization of marijuana)
• Served two terms as governor of New Mexico (1994-2003)
• Supports balancing the federal budget immediately
• Rules out a federal bailout of any states
Johnson, 58, has up until now not been on a lot of Republican radar screens: He was excluded from CNN’s GOP debate in New Hampshire in June because he didn’t poll above two percent nationally – a decision criticized by some. He says he’s still “devastated” by that. He’s been campaigning across the country for nearly two years and has visited some 40 states. While fiscally conservative, Johnson espouses positions on social issues – such as the decriminalization of marijuana — putting him more in line with fellow candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas than Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): What’s motivating you to run? Is this about trying to raise your political profile?
Gary Johnson (GJ): To win – that’s my motivation. Maybe it’s my misfortune I’ve only run for two political offices before, for governor of New Mexico and for reelection as governor. I was successful both times. I’m not a typical politician. After I got out of office as governor, I got involved in a couple of entrepreneurial ventures. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, as well as an athlete. My background is in construction. I started a handyman business in 1974 and grew it to 1,000 employees.
TFT: Why do you think you're qualified to be President of the United States?
GJ: As governor of New Mexico, I vetoed more than 700 bills. I had thousands of line-item vetoes. I may have vetoed more legislation than the other 49 governors combined. I vetoed legislation that had to do with government intrusion into business. And because I got to run state government and run all the agencies, the business climate in New Mexico improved dramatically. I also see government playing a role that no other entity can play. There are bad actors out there. The government has to set some rules and regulations
TFT: Why don’t more of us know about you?
GJ: I wasn’t invited to the CNN debate [in June] – I wasn’t at the table. Yet a few [months] ago they did a poll about the presidential candidates and favorability in their states. Even though New Mexico is two-to-one Democrat, and I made a name for myself as a Jeffersonian – man, did I pinch pennies [as governor, from 1994 to 2003] – there was only one candidate who had a high favorability rating in his own state. And that was me.
TFT: How can you increase your visibility in order to be a viable candidate?
GJ: You’re pointing out the catch-22 for me. The concern with people when it comes to me is, “Wow, I like what you’ve got to say, I like what you’ve done, but man, you’re not even on the radar screen.” You’ve hit on the crux of the issue for me.
TFT: So how will you address this?
GJ: Just keep plugging along. For me, New Hampshire will be pivotal. It’s a retail-politics state where everyone seems to go out of their way to hear what each candidate has to say. And I think I fare well in that environment.
TFT: Do you agree with other Republicans who won’t consider even modest revenue increases as part of a deficit-ceiling package?
GJ: I hope the GOP doesn't raise revenue. I'm advocating the fair tax and everything that goes along with that. It does away with the business-to-business tax. Basically you're not going to have a corporate tax at all. That's going to create tens of millions of jobs. Every free-market economist has said I’m their spokesperson. They’re sort of stuck with me on this. Long term, a fair tax would very much support a kind of a reboot of America, setting the stage for centuries of forward growth, as opposed to this collapse that we’re looking at right now.
TFT: The fair tax would abolish the income tax and do away with the IRS. Could it really be implemented?
GJ: The group at fairtax.org has been in existence now for about five years, so they’ve pretty much got the kinks worked out of the proposal. One tax – it’s a terrific idea. It falls under the notion of fairness, when what we’re stuck with in this country is the notion that some well-connected individuals or corporations do better than others because of their political connectedness. That makes us all angry, and it should.
TFT: Are you able to raise enough money to make a serious run for president?
GJ: Fundraising is a big part of this, and [on July 4] there was a fundraiser here in L.A., a really wonderful affair. There were 100+ people, a terrific event. For me, at some point, online fundraising has to become robust, and at the moment it’s not robust. That has to be part of this equation.
TFT: What else are you proposing to fix our financial problems?
GJ: I’m going to submit a balanced budget for 2013. And if the budget isn’t balanced, as president I would veto the budget. And everybody would say, “Well, you’ll just get overridden,” and yeah, I’ll get overridden. And the American public can make a choice about the president they’ve elected, or they can change Congress. Just balance the budget – set the stage right now, vow to do that. It’s like raising the debt ceiling. Raising the debt ceiling is just another page in a book now that’s becoming pretty thick.
TFT: How would you handle entitlement spending?
GJ: The federal government should block-grant the states a fixed amount of money, 43 percent less than what we’re spending. Do away with the strings, with mandates, and give it to 50 laboratories of innovation and best practice – the 50 states. In New Mexico, I reformed Medicaid, took it from a fee-for-service model to a managed-care model, saved about 20 percent, and delivered better health care. I could have made that happen for Medicare also. Medicare is going to engulf the entire federal budget. But when it comes to Social Security, the system needs to take in more money than it pays out. Without raising taxes, you could make it fiscally sound by raising the retirement age and by having means testing, which is very all-encompassing. You could change the cost of living increase for Social Security from the wage index to inflation index. As far as defense, we can’t continue to nation-build. We can’t continue to spend more money on military spending than all the other countries in the world combined. But we should remain vigilant to the war on terror.
TFT: If you don’t get the needed momentum in this race, at what point do you throw your support behind somebody else?
GJ: That would be down the road. Right now New Hampshire is [five] months away. That’s an eternity in politics.
This piece originally ran on July 10, 2011, and was updated on September 23, 2011.