WHEN HE'S IN his Washington, D.C., office, Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R-Idaho) wears a pin-striped suit, a solid tie, and a white shirt with his nickname stenciled on the cuffs. But it’s the morning of July 4, and Otter is the keynote speaker at a flag-raising ceremony in Idaho Falls, so he’s sporting a different ensemble. Dark blue Wrangler jeans are held up by a black leather belt, cinched with a commemorative buckle Otter won at a 1981 rodeo. He has tucked in one of his campaign shirts, bright banana yellow, just like his “Otter for Idaho” signs. The cuffs and collar are Pacific Ocean blue, one shade darker than the jeans. And all of this, like Otter’s Capitol Hill outfit, is anchored by weathered black cowboy boots.
“Butch, man!” says one of the patriots attending the 8 a.m. flag raising, eyes goggling, as he takes in the full horror of Otter’s shirt. “Wow! Is that legal?”
Otter throws his head back and laughs loudly. It would be strange if he didn’t laugh loudly. Everything he does is boisterous, friendly, and high volume. He slaps a hand on the shoulder of the Gem State’s answer to Don Rickles, jokes along, then pivots on his boot heel to greet more of the people on the lawn.
“Butch Otter,” he says. “Good to see you. Isn’t this a terrific set-up this year? Boy, just look at what Sheila’s put together.”
Sheila is Sheila Olsen, the widow of former Idaho Republican Party Chairman Dennis Olsen, Otter’s Eastern Idaho consultant, and the 1987 National Multiple Sclerosis Mother of the Year. She’s circling the assembled neighbors, Mormon church bigwigs, and politicians in her scooter before the ceremony kicks off. Otter keeps shaking hands and trading jokes. But while he’s talking to Tom Luna, the Republican candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, the subject of South America comes up. A different side of Otter’s brain takes over.
“You know, Milton Friedman taught all the economists who were running Chile when it went very open free market,” Otter says.
“He educated them?” Luna asks.
“He educated most of those guys that were in that government. Graduates of the University of Chicago.”
For about a minute, Otter discourses about Milton Friedman— how Otter discovered his work, how he was one of a handful of free market economists to win the Nobel Prize, how short he is in person. And then another patriot ambles over to meet Otter, and the candidate flips back into meet-and-greet mode. Do you live here in Idaho Falls? Boy, have you seen the fireworks display they put up here?
Butch Otter is a study in contradictions. After Ron Paul of Texas, he’s the most libertarian Republican in the entire caucus. Unlike Paul, he has libertarian victories on his legislative scorecard. In June 2003 he shocked the Bush administration by sponsoring an amendment to a funding bill that stripped out the money the FBI needed to conduct sneak-and-peek searches— that is, raiding a target’s home without issuing a notice to the target. It passed with 309 votes. In 2004 he fought hard to amend the PATRIOT Act to bar the government from searching bookstore and library records. The amendment almost passed, until Otter’s own party leadership held the vote open for an extra 23 minutes to twist arms and get Republicans to vote against it. He was bitter about that vote. “You win some, and some get stolen,” he told reporters.
During three and a half decades in politics, Otter has had his decisions overruled by everyone from Idaho legislators (on obscenity laws they wanted to pass) to his fellow House Republicans (on medical marijuana they wanted to ban) to President Ronald Reagan (on the drinking age his administration wanted to raise).
Now Otter is running for governor of Idaho. In this heavily Republican state, matched up against a Democrat who ran and lost this same race four years ago, he’s the heavy favorite to win. In a July poll conducted by Greg Smith & Associates, Otter leads eastern Idaho newspaper publisher Jerry Brady 47 percent to 25 percent, with the rest of the voters undecided.
Otter has wanted to be governor ever since he was a two-term state legislator from Canyon County, a suburban satellite of Boise. When he made his first gubernatorial bid in the late 1970s, he was known for his flamboyant libertarian beliefs as much as for being the son-in-law—and an employee—of the state’s richest man, potato magnate J.R. Simplot.
Back then, Otter had a hard-core philosophy and a knack for getting it into the headlines. He had opposed a state anti-pornography law by saying, “I vote not just no but hell no.” In a March 1978 interview with Reason, gubernatorial candidate Otter mused that “if a person, of his own free will, wants to use marijuana, I question whether the government has any propriety in telling him he can’t.” By limiting freedom, he said, “the government, in effect, is taking away the only real gift the Lord gave us.” But Otter lost the Republican primary that year; in a seven-way tussle, he came in third.
“I played the young, energetic, up-and-coming role that was unseasoned by politics—I sort of was the businessman,” Otter remembers. “But there was a crowded field, and as sometimes happens when you’ve got a crowded field, I came up short.”
Otter was 35, and any reporter or politician would have told you he was a spent force in Idaho politics. It has taken almost three decades for him to come back and fight for the most powerful office in his state. Otter’s ideals are libertarian—and have often crashed against the wall of Idaho’s political reality. He provides a case study of how libertarian ideals fare when they leave the realm of intellectual debate and enter partisan politics, even in a state, like Idaho, whose voters have a tradition of supporting smaller government.
The State Makes the Man
To understand Butch Otter, you have to understand Idaho. That’s one reason Otter has slipped past the media’s microscope. To pundits on both coasts, the 43rd state is remote and alien, the least comprehensible state in the Rockies. Utah has its Mormon culture, Montana has its range life, and Wyoming has its mountains and national parks. Idaho has nothing so distinguishing. It has potatoes and salmon (and Mormons, too, as we’ll see), but who can say what else?
Sun Valley, the part of the state most likely to be visited by members of the coastal elites, is a liberal oasis that has little relation to the rest of Idaho—a clone of Cape Cod plunked between two mountains. Four years ago Sen. Larry Craig (a Republican, like every Idaho senator since Democrat Frank Church was defeated in 1980) bridled at Sun Valley’s very name. “Someone from back East once said, ‘Oh, you represent Sun Valley,’ ” Craig told a reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express. “And I told him, ‘No, I don’t represent Sun Valley.’ ”
The resort area’s surrounding county, Blaine, is the only county in the state that voted Democratic for president in 2000 and 2004. In both races, George W. Bush received more than two-thirds of the state’s votes. (Both times, the Libertarian Party candidate’s share of the vote far exceeded his national average.) Idaho is safely Republican and hasn’t been seriously up for grabs since Lyndon Johnson squeaked 5,000 ballots past Barry Goldwater back in 1964.
What makes the state and its people so conservative and so Republican? It all started with the Mormons. The state had been settled by the same hodgepodge of miners and rebuffed Confederates as other Western states, and these pioneers, Protestant and Catholic, voted for Democrats. In the 1880s, just as the Idaho territory was becoming a serious candidate for statehood, Mormons were coming up from Utah to settle and spread the gospel of Joseph Smith. Idahoans blanched and rushed into the arms of the anti-Mormon GOP. The Republicans eventually lost the upper hand, battered by union activism and prairie populism; they were resurgent in the 1920s, then obliterated by the New Deal and its handout-happy liberal Democrats.
While party loyalties shifted back and forth, Idaho voters generally stayed skeptical of big government. The Democrats’ rise to power in the ’30s was short-lived, as most Idahoans opposed tax increases, demanded tight budgets from their government, and preferred business investment over an intrusive welfare state. Idahoans were, and are, incredibly spread out geographically, with small towns and the occasional small city nestling between dozens of miles of mountains and desert. In this state nine times larger than New Jersey, it took until 1990 for the population to hit 1 million. Except in moments of national crisis like the Depression or a world war, Idaho voters wanted their government to do as little as possible.
“Idaho is a doctrinally conservative state,” says Bill Hall, a retired editorial page editor for the Lewiston Morning Tribune and former press secretary for Sen. Frank Church. “The people are 30 percent liberal and 60 percent conservative, and the rest flip back and forth. Anybody in either party who wanted to get elected had to be conservative. If he’s running now he has to oppose gun control, has to advocate for states’ rights.”
This was the climate that in 1942 welcomed Clement Leroy Otter, the sixth of Ben and Regina Otter’s nine children. The family lived in the city of Caldwell in southwestern Idaho, a fast half-hour’s drive from Boise. Ben Otter was an electrician who dabbled in local politics; his wife ran a farm that included 360 acres of grain and an 80-cow dairy.
“I was raised by a real tough, hard-working father and mother,” Otter says. “And I’m Catholic, so a lot of my direction came from the Catholic Church. I attended Catholic school most of my life. I spent a little time studying to become a Catholic priest!”
Catholicism provided, among other things, the “Butch” nickname. Nuns called Otter “Clem,” which happened to be the name of the bumbling yokel character (last name: Kadiddlehopper) on Red Skelton’s TV show. A few schoolyard fights later, Otter emerged with minor bruises and a new nickname.
“To come from a strong, Catholic union family,” Otter says, “and to end up being a Republican conservative, was, I guess, unique. When they polled us Catholic high school kids in 1960, everybody voted for Kennedy.
“In 1964, which was the first time I got to vote, I went down to get information, and it just so happened the Democrat and Republican booths were together. So I picked up the material to register as a Democrat, and as I walked out there happened to be a lady I knew, Peg Lundy, working the Republican booth. She said ‘Butch, if you’re going to take their stuff, you have to take our stuff too.’ So to be polite I went over and picked up a bag full of Republican stuff.”
Otter was volunteering at a hospital, and when on break he would “sit there and read that stuff. One of the things in there was The Conscience of a Conservative, by Barry Goldwater, and I read this because I knew Peggy Lundy was going to ask me some questions! But the more I read, the more I liked. Goldwater’s conclusion was that a government strong enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take away everything you have. And I said, ‘Boy, that makes sense to me.’ So I ended up voting for Barry Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.”
1964 brought concerns more pressing than a presidential race. That was the year Otter married Gay Simplot, the daughter of J.R. Simplot. Otter started at the bottom of his father-in-law’s company, shoving potatoes into the water trough of the Caldwell potato plant while pursuing a political science degree at the College of Idaho across town. He got the degree in 1967; four years after that, he was promoted to vice president at J.R. Simplot. He was enjoying himself at the company, but he’d spent a little time as a page in the state legislature 30 minutes down the road, and he’d liked that too. And by that time he was involving himself more and more in a “fringe” movement in Canyon County.
The county bordering Boise was becoming the center of libertarian politics in Idaho. The driving force was Caldwell’s pre-eminent political philosopher, a livestock dealer named Ralph Smeed who started devoting his fortune to popularizing small-government ideas. He attracted a circle of libertarian-minded young activists and businessmen, sponsoring political meetings and trips to the Foundation for Economic Education in New York. In 1969 Smeed co-founded a libertarian newsletter called the Idaho Compass with two low-level Republican activists, including a fruit grower named Steve Symms.
“You could not have any interest in politics and not know Ralph Smeed,” Symms remembers. “But at the time, if you were reading local newspapers and watching the three TV channels, there was no exposure to ideas of liberty. We were having trouble getting people to read the Compass, kicking around ideas, and figured that the only thing most people are interested in is politics. Maybe we could run for office and spread the gospel of free markets and personal responsibility.”
Symms ran for Congress as a Republican in Idaho’s 1st District, historically the most Democratic in the state. Another libertarian and Smeed ally, Maurice Clements, ran as a Republican for the state legislature. So did Otter, who aimed for the state House seat representing Canyon County. On election night, all three men came out ahead.
Back on the Trail
The crowd is settling down at Sheila Olsen’s house as the flag-raising ceremony gets under way. A local religion professor leads the crowd in singing “America the Beautiful”—all four verses, even the one about “alabaster cities” that gleam “undimmed by human tears.” Gov. Jim Risch is given a few minutes to thank the crowd and introduce the rest of the program.
Risch was a lieutenant governor who moved up to the big chair when incumbent Dirk Kempthorne (a fellow Republican) quit to become President Bush’s interior secretary. Risch had mulled running for the job even before it fell into his lap, and Otter’s political team had scrambled to build a statewide machine in case Risch actually jumped into the race. But Risch held off and filed to run for another term in the No. 2 job instead.
In this crowd, you can see why Risch didn’t opt to compete with Otter. The 63-year-old Risch cuts an affable, average figure at the microphone, clad in a blue blazer and white khakis, interspersing his pep talk with jokes about his wife Vicki’s tender age. Even then, Otter manages to upstage him. Risch points out that Vicki’s birthday is this week, and she’ll be turning—ha ha!—29. When Olsen comes back to introduce Otter and unwinds the many years Otter has spent in public office, the congressman can sense the audience adding the numbers up.
“I’m turning 29 too!” he says.
Uproarious laughter and one catcall: “Sure you are, Butch!”
“OK, then. Thirty-nine!”
Otter brings down the mood when he launches into his scheduled speech. “We had a lot of folks who still wanted to be under the crown because they wanted the protection from the American natives,” Otter says. “They wanted the protection that the crown offered and they were willing to be subjected to just a little bit of slavery, just a little bit of not having their own liberty and personal responsibility, for that protection. But there were others who saw a greater sign and wanted to develop a greater life.”
It’s an impressive speech; Otter is giving it without notes. But his praise for the founders’ commitment to liberty doesn’t set any hairs on end. There is a veteran of the Iraq war in the crowd, and Butch singles him out and thanks him for his two tours of duty in a war that, to many libertarians’ dismay, Otter supported. The climax of Otter’s speech is a recollection of 9/11 in Washington, D.C.—an explosion at the Pentagon, a knowledge that “as long as there’s one American left standing, we’re going to defeat this enemy.”
Otter gets a rapturous reception for this, but he’s quickly on his way. An hour later he’s arriving at Idaho Falls’ Independence Day parade, marching ahead of the GOP float with fellow candidate Tom Luna and the state’s other congressman, fellow Republican Mike Simpson. Otter excels in arenas like this. He walks with long strides, waving right and left, smiling a wide smile that erases a decade off his face. At the end of the parade route, as Otter regroups, I ask Simpson if Otter’s stance on the PATRIOT Act clashes with people in Eastern Idaho—if it’s considered liberal.
“I don’t think that’s a liberal stance at all,” Simpson says as he towels sweat off his forehead. “The government looking into your library records? The government monitoring your phone calls? The overwhelming number of people around here think the government’s gone too far in what they control. Butch is seen as one of the very good conservatives.”
But Otter’s campaign has serious issues in the 2nd District, which covers the state from Boise east to the Wyoming and Utah borders. While Otter was growing up and as he entered politics, Mormons started a pilgrimage into the Republican Party. Put off by the Democrats’ embrace of abortion rights and social liberalism, Mormons would eventually make up a powerful wing of the Idaho GOP. It was a Mormon candidate, Idaho House Speaker Allan Larsen, who bested Otter in his 1978 bid for the GOP’s gubernatorial nod. Otter’s social libertarianism rankled religious conservatives in a race he lost by a few thousand votes.
Otter’s Democratic opponent for governor, Jerry Brady —who traveled the parade route in a 1912 Cadillac—doesn’t think Otter’s social views are a handicap in the area anymore. He thinks it’s his libertarian approach to regulation and public land that will give the Democrats, who last won the governor’s mansion in 1990, their opening.
“He made a big mistake of wanting to sell 5 million acres of public land,” Brady explains. “That’s kind of a libertarian proposition—less federal land, more private land—but it really backfired on him.”
Otter has something of a history with public land and federal regulation. In 1999 he was hit with a complaint from the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally creating a pond out of wetlands on his estate on the Boise River. He fought the EPA for two years before paying a $50,000 fine. When candidate Otter proposed selling off some more of the state’s well-regulated land, some voters saw a grudge trumping political sense.
“The people of Idaho love their public land,” Brady says. “That’s where they hunt and fish and pick huckleberries. People worry when you say ‘sell 5 million acres’ without saying which 5 million acres. It could be wasteland. It could be wetland.”
Brady’s choice of that particular issue cuts against a political fact in all of the Mountain West and Southwest states—every state east of California and west of the Dakotas, from the Canadian border to the militarized Mexico line. As The New York Post’s Ryan Sager notes in his new book The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, these states have stronger libertarian streaks than you might guess from their rock-solid Republican voting patterns on the presidential level. “Nevada, Colorado and Montana all have medical marijuana laws (along with the Blue states on the Pacific Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont),” Sager points out. “Resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act and requesting that state officials not enforce its provisions if they infringe on the civil rights of citizens have been passed out West by the Republican-controlled state legislature in Idaho and Democrat-controlled state legislatures in Colorado, Montana and New Mexico.”
But the skepticism of government reflected in trends like these, especially in Idaho’s opposition to the PATRIOT Act, has its limits. Butch Otter has tested Idahoans’ tolerance of social and economic libertarianism. While it has defeated him only once, in 1978, the division has wounded him at several pivotal moments in his career. Otter survived his later challenges, in part, by moving away from full-bore, unapologetic libertarian advocacy and by moderating his stances on hot-button social issues.
As a 30-year-old legislator, Otter made friends quickly. It wasn’t difficult for a libertarian Republican to find like minds in Boise.
“He and Congressman Steve Symms were drinking buddies—or, I guess, coffee buddies—in Canyon County,” the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Bill Hall remembers, correcting himself to note that Otter’s group was sober and serious. “There were four or five guys that hung out together, all big libertarians. But they were only as libertarian as they could be in the Republican Party.”
Otter became the most outspoken of the state legislature’s libertarian rump; the runner-up was undoubtedly Maurice Clements, who sponsored a bill to start a school voucher system. But Otter usually dodged the libertarian label and framed his politics as conservative, even co-founding a Conservative Caucus within the GOP.
“When Steve ran for Senate [in 1980] he flipped over and became a regulation conservative Republican,” says Hall. A congressman who had warmed libertarian hearts with an effort to let citizens buy gold began speaking out on issues like abortion, loudly declaring his pro-life views.
“As Steve goes, so goes Butch Otter,” Hall says. “Except Butch took longer to convert to full-on Republican, and he hasn’t shifted all the way. He still has his bold moments.”
“Philosophically I don’t think I changed,” says Symms, who retired from the Senate in 1992 and is now with the lobbying firm Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms. “But it’s probably a fine line.” Sen. Symms was politically pragmatic, ready to ally with more liberal Republicans such as Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter in order to score a GOP legislative victory. Symms remembers Idaho conservatives beseeching him to vote for all of Ronald Reagan’s initiatives, if only because the not-exactly-libertarian president was “on our side.”
Otter had very little reason to rethink his political philosophy after losing his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1978. Mormon House Speaker Allan Larsen had won the nomination by running up votes in eastern Idaho. Otter had left the legislature two years earlier; he was working at J.R. Simplot full time. During this period he threw himself completely into his work, clambering onto international jets to pitch Simplot’s potatoes and other products.
“I went all over the world,” Otter recalls. “I got to deal with a lot of different countries. And when I would come home I would say, ‘My biggest problem getting a project going in a foreign country is my own government.’ It always was. With the exception of a couple of agencies, my biggest problem was the government saying, ‘No, we don’t want you to do this, no, we don’t want you do that.’”
When the lieutenant governor’s seat opened up in 1986, Otter pondered a political comeback. The state was in an economic slump, and Otter had firsthand knowledge of how to get companies to trade with Idaho and provide jobs. His new campaign had less to do with ideology than with the nuts and bolts of business and economics.
Otter was the party’s choice and the overwhelming favorite for the nomination, but he was challenged by an eastern Idaho Republican organizer named Chuck Lempesis. A political nobody, Lempesis started to gain traction by slamming Otter’s pornography bill vote, his statements on drug use, and his unwillingness to ban abortion. (Though a practicing Catholic, Otter has been reluctant to involve the state in that issue.) On primary day, Lempesis held Otter to 58 percent, robbing him of eastern Idaho and the Mormon vote. On election day, Otter barely won—he was almost felled, again, by weak support in the east.
Lt. Gov. Otter wasn’t humbled by his narrow victories. His first month in office, the state legislature voted to comply with a Reagan administration requirement that states raise their drinking ages to 21 in return for federal highway money. Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus had left town when the bill was passed, leaving Otter in charge. He vetoed it.
The controversial Otter was back. State Rep. Mack Neibur, a Mormon Republican, commented that the drinking age veto “just about shot [Otter] in the butt.” But Otter remembers that veto as a symbolic stand that made sense to voters.
“Initially they were a little concerned,” he says. “But I wrote in my veto message about the 10th Amendment, and then in my letter I asked President Reagan, ‘What happened to my great champion of states’ rights?’ Here was the big government telling the states what to do.”
Otter rolled to re-election in 1990. He mulled a run for governor in 1994. But two events in the summer of 1992 roiled the waters for him. On July 31, he participated in, and won, a “tight jeans contest” at the Rockin’ Rodeo Inn in Boise. It was a silly story that would have bothered only the most starched-shirt Idahoans, if not for what happened the following night. Otter was driving his Jeep on I-84 in Canyon County when police saw him swerve across the lanes. When they pulled him over, he claimed he was only trying to grab his cowboy hat after the wind blew it off. The officer gave Otter a sobriety test. He failed it.
Otter’s gubernatorial ambitions were sidelined as he was sentenced to 72 hours of community service and 16 hours of alcohol awareness meetings. “It was my mistake,” he says today. “I took personal responsibility for it. That’s how our laws work. That’s how our system works.”
Otter hung on to his job in 1994 and 1998 as the GOP moved on. When Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who represented Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, retired in 2000, Otter put his hat in the ring, and he faced all the criticism of his character and his philosophy anew. Dennis Mansfield, a Christian conservative activist, pounced on the DUI conviction as proof that Otter couldn’t represent Idahoans. “Just what we need in Washington,” said one of his ads. “Another bad example for our children.” Otter faced Mansfield head on, made no apologies, and beat him by 21 points. In November he steamrolled the Democrats’ candidate and headed to Washington.
No one knew quite what to expect from Butch Otter on the national stage. He voted to approve President Bush’s tax cuts. In May 2001 he voted with most Republicans (including Mike Simpson) in favor of the expansive No Child Left Behind Act. But after September 11, Otter’s libertarian streak sliced through the Republican caucus. When the PATRIOT Act came to a vote, he was one of three Republicans to oppose it. (The others were Ron Paul of Texas and Bob Ney of Ohio.)
“I understood what the arguments were,” Otter says today. “In the original version of the bill they included sunsets, to look at the laws again in four years. But I knew that once the government takes powers for itself, you’re never going to get your personal responsibilities back.”
In the 2002 election Otter faced Democrat Betty Richardson, who said she would have voted for the PATRIOT Act. It was a closer election than the 2000 race; Otter’s victory margin shrunk from 30 points in 2000 to 18 points in 2002. (Richardson says she doubts the PATRIOT Act was much of an issue.) A few months into the 108th Congress, an emboldened Otter offered the amendment defunding sneak-and-peek searches. It passed in a landslide, 309 to 118. Before party leaders sliced it out of the bill, the move earned him the ire of the Justice Department and the support of most of the voters back home.
“It really helped me when [Attorney General John] Ashcroft came out against the amendment,” Otter says, “when he went on tour supporting the PATRIOT Act. That didn’t go over well in Idaho.”
Those were the highlights of Otter’s House career. At other times, he acted with the GOP majority to pass bills libertarians strongly opposed. Otter provided a crucial vote for the 2003 law that created a new Medicare prescription drug benefit, expected to cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years. When a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning came to the floor, Otter stuck with his party and voted for it. “In the West, we have what is called a brand,” Otter explains. “That brand is yours; you put it on stuff that you own. And that flag is our brand, as Americans. Anyone who wants to burn that up—they can’t defile my brand with their free speech.”
That wasn’t the only time the congressman’s libertarian streak disappeared. Otter also voted for the 2005 House bill intervening in the Terri Schiavo case, overruling Florida courts to keep a brain-damaged woman on life support. He has voted for all the Republican iterations of immigration reform, even when they criminalized Good Samaritans who aid illegals. (“We need to get the border under control,” Otter says, “and then we can decide what to do about the people who are already here.”) He has voted for several versions of campaign finance limits.
Since he declared for governor in 2005, Otter has kept up a political juggling act. He’s voted against some funding packages for the Iraq war and for Hurricane Katrina relief. But as his supporters back in Idaho Falls know, he voted for the original Iraq force resolution. He’s walked back his previous support for privatization of Social Security. He reversed his position on privatizing Idaho’s public land after his opponent, Jerry Brady, relentlessly pounded the issue.
“He’s a libertarian at times. He’s also not a libertarian at times,” says Richardson, his 2002 opponent. “He’s a convenient libertarian.”
What Kind of Governor?
Otter never runs away from his past. The DUI arrest has come up in this race; so have his votes against regulation of Idaho’s public lands and in favor of personal liberties. He doesn’t play up those beliefs, but he doesn’t back down from them either. “I still support medical marijuana,” he says, for example. “You go to some of these places where people have cancer. Some of these people, the only way they can get relief is by smoking marijuana. I was in favor of Oregon’s right to die law. I wouldn’t ever suggest that in Idaho, but that’s what that state wanted.”
What kind of governor will this make him, assuming the race continues to go his way? Has he softened at all since his brash, libertarian-colored gubernatorial campaign 28 years ago? Otter thinks for a few seconds. “I don’t know that I’ve changed,” he says. “I’m probably more understanding and less idealistic. I’m aware of the law of the land. I used to think, well, if we’ve got a state law here that would conflict with the federal law, well, by golly, we created the federal government, they didn’t create us. But if it’s the law of the land, it’s the law of land. And that’s what’s got to rule.”
And those are the limits of libertarian politics. Even in a state like Idaho, where the population is relatively open to libertarian ideas, radical small-government reforms are weighed down by political realities. That was the case even when Otter was on the rise. In a 1981 interview with Reason, Maurice Clements—Otter’s ally in the Idaho legislature—remembered that the Republican majority had bottled up his school voucher bill, refusing to let it come to the floor. “It so infuriated me,” he said. “A whole legislature that was dominated and controlled by Republicans, and you couldn’t even get a bill printed that would strike a blow for a somewhat half-way house approach to education!”
Libertarians in Idaho have allowed themselves some similar grumbling about Otter. “Otter is a consummate politician,” says Ted Dunlap, the head of the state Libertarian Party and a 2006 candidate for governor. “He’s playing down the issue of personal freedoms”—even though, in Dunlap’s view, Otter cares deeply about that issue. In October 2005, Ralph Smeed gave a dejected interview to Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey about Otter’s backsliding on libertarian issues. “I’m not totally up in the air” about whether Otter would live up to his promise, Smeed said optimistically. “I’ve got one foot on the ground, with my fingers crossed.”
In his heart, Butch Otter is a libertarian, a man who thinks the government should stay out of people’s checkbooks, bedrooms, and library records. In his head, he knows how limited the appeal of libertarianism is to Idaho voters. What’s the difference between a libertarian governor and a governor who holds libertarian values? During the next four years, Idaho and the nation are going to find out.