SAN ANTONIO — In a presidential campaign season featuring polarizing front-runners and infighting among Republicans and Democrats, Gary Johnson sees an opening.
That’s if more folks realize they have options outside of the country’s two juggernaut parties, says the former two-term New Mexico governor.
The Republican-turned-Libertarian got something of a pick-me-up late last month. He drew 11 percent support in a nationwide Monmouth University poll asking registered voters whom they would pick in a contest between Republican Donald Trump, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Johnson, the 63-year-old fitness freak who has climbed each continent’s tallest mountain (Everest was the biggest challenge).
But even Johnson, who received about 1.2 million votes in a 2012 presidential run, admits the polling results probably don’t signal that he’ll soon become a household name. In the same poll, more than three-fourths of respondents said they did not know enough about his background to form an opinion about him.
“If Mickey Mouse would have been the third name, Mickey would have probably gotten 28 percent,” he told The Texas Tribune in an interview. “That’s how fed up people are.”
Johnson, who left his job as CEO of a company that sells marijuana products to launch his latest White House bid, spoke with The Texas Tribune last week before participating in a debate at the state’s Libertarian convention (Though a front runner in his party’s contest, he has yet to officially wrap up the nomination). Wearing a gray V-neck T-shirt and blue jeans, Johnson critiqued two-party politics and weighed in on several hot-button issues in Texas and beyond: immigration policy, abortion rights and voting laws.
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.
TT: So it looks like you’ve gained some attention recently with that poll.
Johnson: They included my name for the first time in a national poll. I have never had an issue with requirements that presidential candidates need 15 percent of support in polls to participate in national debates. My issue is just being in the polls. And shouldn’t your name be in the polls if you are on the ballot in all 50 states?
TT: Is this the type of year that could put you over that threshold?
Johnson: Yeah. I think that Hillary and Trump are the two most polarizing figures in American politics. I think they’re going to be the nominees. Fifty percent of Americans say they’re independent [Or 42 percent, according to a 2015 Gallup poll]. I think Hillary and Trump represent 30 just percent of the electorate. The majority of people in this country are Libertarian, but they just don’t know.
TT: So you see the Trump-Hillary matchup as an advantage for Libertarians. But do you see the same opening if U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz beats Trump?
Johnson: Cruz has got the same xenophobia going as Trump. And I can’t believe it. As a border-state senator, I don’t get it. What I’ve seen firsthand is that 30 percent of Republicans believe the scourge of the earth is Mexican immigration. And that’s the group that Trump has appealed to. I’ve never said anything as crazy as deporting 11 million illegal immigrants and building a fence across the border. And how does that work with the Rio Grande? Is the fence going to go on the U.S. side, or is it going to go on the Mexican side?
TT: If you’re not a build-a-wall guy, what is the right answer on border security?
Johnson: I think we should make it as easy as possible for somebody who wants to come into this country and work to get a work visa. I’m not talking about a green card. The solution is to create a moving line. Don’t put the government in charge of quotas. There will either be jobs or there won’t be jobs. And a work visa should include a background check and a Social Security card so that taxes get paid.
TT: What about citizenship?
Johnson: Yes, there should be a pathway to citizenship, and there should be an embrace of immigration as something really good. They’re not taking jobs that U.S. citizens want.
TT: But what about security at the border? The Tribune has been reporting on some of the issues — such as spotty communication between various government agencies — that has allowed some people to come across the border and commit crimes.
Johnson: So much of that has to do with drugs. The U.S. is on the verge of having the whole country legalize marijuana. I think California is going to vote to legalize marijuana in November, and then 20 state legislatures will legalize it virtually overnight. This is going to lead to the end of prohibition. This is going to lead to a tremendous reduction in border violence.
TT: Do you see some Libertarian voters — whether they know they’re Libertarians or not — gravitating toward either Trump or Cruz?
Johnson: I do see the vast majority of Americans alienated by either Hillary or Trump. If they have an alternative — well, they do have the alternative, and it happens to be me. Everybody’s talking about a third party. Nobody’s taking the next half step to say that’s the Libertarian party. Well, who’s the party’s presumptive nominee? Me.
TT: How would you describe the difference between Libertarians and Tea Party Republicans? Don’t they both call for limited government?
Johnson: When the Tea Party first came on the scene — I was 100 percent Tea Party. But now, the Tea Party is Republican. It’s socially conservative. Smaller government seems to be secondary to social issues. No, I’m not a Tea Partier. I mean, abortion — some people are saying the No. 1 Tea Party issue is abortion. Really?
TT: Since you brought up abortion, what do you think about HB 2 — the 2013 law that required Texas abortion clinics to meet some of the same standards as hospitals, which critics say forced man to shutdown?
Johnson: I think it’s an affront to women’s rights. Abortion is an unbelievably difficult decision that anyone should have to make. But only a woman should make it.
TT: But on fiscal issues, you’re staunchly conservative?
Johnson: I’m not for survival of the fittest. I have identified people that truly are in need. Without government help, they’re really going to fall through the cracks. But we’ve gone way over the line in defining in need. That needs to be scaled back, or we’re going to find ourselves not being able to provide any of these services. So I am for smaller government. Less taxes. That’s more freedom for you and I to spend that money.
TT: How do you draw that line between people in need and those who aren’t?
Johnson: I’m proposing a balanced budget, and you can’t balance the budget if you don’t address Medicaid, Medicare and military spending. The only way to accomplish this is to give it up to the states, which are laboratories of best practice. [Johnson says the federal government should gives states block grants for entitlement programs and allow them to set the rules.] You will ultimately have best practices that will be emulated. We’re also going to witness horrible failure that would later be avoided.
TT: That’s a very libertarian stance — survival of the fittest states. But what happens to the people in the states that may fail?
Johnson: I’m going to argue that if we don’t get government spending under control, there’s going to be horrible inflation that goes along with our monetary policies.
TT: Texas is perennially near the bottom nationally in voter turnout. We have what some consider the nation’s strictest voter ID law, and we don’t allow people to register to vote online. How do you feel about those policies?
Johnson: I’m in the camp that believes we should make it as easy as possible to vote. When you start talking about restricting the right to vote or voter ID, ultimately that’s about less people voting.
TT: How would you respond to those who say out current policies are about protecting the integrity of elections?
Johnson: No, I think it’s about restricting Hispanic voters for the most part.
TT: After climbing the world’s tallest mountains, what’s the next athletic challenge you’re gearing up for?
Johnson: If I’m not elected president, next summer I’m planning to ride the divide, which is a 3,000-mile mountain bike race across the continental divide from Banff, Canada, to the Mexico-New Mexico border.