Barack Obama

The Real Bill Richardson

Is the presidential contender a libertarian Democrat?

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Speaking to a liberal audience at the New America Foundation in May, Bill Richardson, the half-Hispanic governor of New Mexico, had a chance to create a campaign image from scratch. He chose this one: "I'm a market-oriented Democrat." His energy solutions didn't involve reregulating utilities or taxing the windfall profits of oil companies. "I want to set mandates," he said instead, "and let the market respond."

Richardson's long resumé includes a lengthy career as a congressman and a stint as Bill Clinton's final secretary of energy. (Before the second Democratic debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, the governor's raucous supporters chanted all of his job titles.) Elected governor in 2002, Richardson inherited a largely Democratic legislature and a persistently poor state. At a time when other Democrats were defining themselves by their opposition to President Bush's tax cuts, Richardson attacked state taxes. He slashed the top state income tax rate by 40 percent, and he cut the capital gains tax in half. In 2005 the libertarian Cato Institute gave Richardson a B on its biennial gubernatorial Fiscal Policy Report Card—higher, as his flacks love to point out, than the grades received by Florida's Jeb Bush and Massachusetts' Mitt Romney.

According to Cato's election analysis, 72 percent of libertarian-leaning voters supported George W. Bush in 2000. Six years later, only 59 percent backed the Republicans—a significant shift away from the GOP. Bill Richardson could be the candidate who appeals to those disaffected voters. But it's not clear, from his record and from his style of governing, that he'll deserve them.

Richardson has collected unusually warm praise from free market activists and even pocketed a little money from people who donate to libertarian think tanks and causes. The anti-tax Club for Growth summed it up in a cautiously pro-Richardson press release welcoming the governor into the race: "A different kind of Democrat, hopefully."

"He really might appeal to the libertarian vote," says David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute. "I've heard a number of governors pegged as 'libertarian Democrat,' and usually when I look into their records, it doesn't hold up. But Richardson comes close."

He looks especially attractive when compared to his opponents. Democratic front-runner
Hillary Clinton has drawn up a vision of "shared prosperity" in which higher taxes on wealthy Americans will pay for more and better transfer payments. Dark horse John Edwards, whose man-of-the-people shtick makes Huey Long look like Ivan Boesky, wants to return to pre-Bush tax levels and have the government pay for universal college and a national jobs program. Barack Obama has co-sponsored the Fair Pay Act of 2007, which would task the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with regulating the pay for men and women in "equivalent jobs."

In the first Democratic debate, Richardson dressed down the rest of the field's penchant for bigger government: "As Democrats, I just hope that we always don't think of new taxes to pay for programs."

"Bill believes that people should have freedom to live their lives the way we want to live them," says Ned Farquhar, who helped write the governor's campaign autobiography, Between Worlds, and is working closely with him on an environment-focused sequel. "That's the whole basis of this society, that we ought to respect each other's rights. He's seen the tyranny of the majority, and I think it's committed him to protecting the rights of minorities, from gay rights to gun rights."

All this hype is a bit perplexing to Richardson's predecessor, former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson. A strong supporter of school choice and drug decriminalization, Johnson was, without much debate, America's most libertarian state executive.

"I don't think Bill Richardson has got much to offer libertarians," Johnson says. "He plays up the fact that he cuts taxes when, if you add up all the fees he's approved, there's been a net tax increase. It's an indictment of Cato and the Club for Growth that they'd consider him a tax cutter." How much of an indictment? "It makes me a little less impressed by the good grades Cato gave me."

According to Johnson, who's out of the political game now but sounds like many rank-and-file New Mexico Republicans, you can't judge Richardson's libertarian bona fides from the scorecards. You have to look at how he governs. Johnson kept a staff of 22; Richardson is aided by 33 people. Johnson generally stayed out of legislative disputes and logrolling, while Richardson involves himself in everything.

In Between Worlds, Richardson slams Johnson's laissez-faire approach: "After nearly eight years of Governor No, as Johnson's frustrated opponents called him, many New Mexicans in both parties said they were ready for more aggressive leadership." Johnson exercised 742 vetoes and believed the government that governs least governs best; Richardson doesn't seem to agree.

Some of Richardson's "aggressiveness" has manifested itself in positive ways. Take the tax issue. In 2003, Richardson convened a special legislative session, working for days to hammer out the eventual tax cut plan. He also fought for, and won, the endorsement of the National Rifle Association in 2006. Challenged on that this year, he said he wouldn't turn down the group's endorsement in a presidential campaign and that he was a "recreational hunter."

Richardson also signed a medical marijuana law. Even Johnson gives him credit for that. But he adds, "That's a no-brainer. He's for the status quo on other drug laws." Indeed, Governor Yes balanced his support for medical marijuana by loudly supporting a public registry for drug offenders.

Richardson might be most "aggressive" when protecting himself politically. In one crafty political maneuver, he gave government jobs to 21 of New Mexico's top reporters, news editors, and producers, effectively shielding himself from an aggressive press corps. In another move that should give libertarians pause, Richardson sent National Guard troops to protect the state's small, 180-mile border with Mexico. It was a "border emergency," he told CNN crusader-host Lou Dobbs.

And everyone agrees the governor started to slide off the fiscal wagon as he geared up for a second term and a presidential bid. Gasoline, special fuels, and out-of-state oil and gasoline distributors all got taxed. He delayed his income tax cuts for 2006. The cigarette tax, the path of least resistance for state lawmakers, was hiked to raise $127 million. In 2006 the Cato Institute lowered his grade to a C, still not bad for a Democrat (and still marginally better than the grades given Romney and Jeb Bush), but a reflection of how quickly the "market Democrat" veneer can crack when it comes time to raise revenue.

Richardson isn't driven by libertarian principles. He's simply a realist: more impressed by markets, and less impressed by central planning, than any other Democrat in the race. And that matters. Richardson would not be a semi-serious contender for the presidency if he hadn't looked at New Mexico's problems through "Market Democrat" goggles. That's how he earned his marquee achievements, and that's how his credibility grew.

Hardly anyone expects Richardson to win the nomination. He consistently polls in the high single digits, well behind the three front-runners. He has none of their interest group support either, and he hasn't stood out in the debates. But he's a strong contender for the vice-presidential nomination, and Richardson knows his libertarian talk has boosted his image. The "market Democrat" brand sells, whether or not the politicians themselves are buying.

David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.

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63 responses to “The Real Bill Richardson

  1. I wonder whether they would contribute any money to Richardson’s campaign if they did embrace him. According the FEC records, none of the big-name libertarians who blabber on about Ron Paul here have sent him a cent.

  2. The “market Democrat” brand sells, whether or not the politicians themselves are buying.

    So does the pro-gun message. But the Ds aren’t paying any attention to that, either. They’re still in “We got Congress back, so it’s time to push all the stuff that got us kicked out last time” mode.

  3. Wait a minute. It isn’t the politicians who have to buy a brand; it’s the voters.

  4. I will say this in Richardson’s favor: He doesn’t make me want to vomit.

    Given this year’s field, that’s rare praise.

  5. Richardson is the least odious, and if the race was Guiliani or McCain for the Republicans, and I couldn’t cast a protest vote for whoever gets the nod from the Libertarian party, I’d consider voting for Richardson.

  6. On the gun issue, I have a hard time trusting Richardson. Most pro-gun democrats either get shouted down, or become anti-gun in the typical DC tit-for-tat legislation game.

  7. meiageek

    Who on earth could get the nod from the Libertarian party who wouldn’t merit a protest vote?

  8. Dorothy-

    Your mom.

    Hugs and Kisses

  9. I don’t get how the number of vetoes, the size of the executive staff, and a hands-off approach to legislative process are supposed to count as markers of a libertian-ish approach to policy.

    Gov. Johnson’s complaints make him sound like he’s more interested in personality and style than in advancing a libertarian agenda.

  10. Um, how about Ron Paul as my libertarian candidate?

  11. I’ve ignored Richardson ever since I learned that he wanted every car sold in New Mexico to have breathalyzer-locked ignition switches.

    Was that his only failing? Is he really worthy of a libertarian vote?

  12. Pro Libertate

    Go for it, but send the poor sap some cash.

  13. @Edward
    So what if someone spends 5 hour blogging on Ron Paul each quarter? You could have spent that time doing paid work as well…

  14. Is he really worthy of a libertarian vote?

    Worthy?

    No.

    Only Dem who, if elected, won’t compel me leave the country?

    Yes.

  15. Jerry

    I’m independently wealthy, so I don’t have to work. I haven’t sent Ron Paul any money, of course, but neither have Gillespie, Walker, Weigel, or any of the other big mouths who want you to think the guy is going to change the political landscape. Must not believe it themselves is my guess.

  16. Here’s an excerpt from an interesting piece on Ron Paul at http://knappster.blogspot.com/2007/07/my-ron-paul-conspiracy-theory.html

    “And we know that the pattern of Paul’s activities over the last 20 years has amounted to a gigantic fleecing of various constituencies, including but not limited to the libertarian movement and the Libertarian Party. At any given moment, Paul may have sold himself to various donor pools as a “libertarian,” a “constitutionalist” or a “small government conservative” (he’s a little cagier when selling himself to the racists, usually stopping short of flatly identifying himself as one, and blaming unnamed “ghost writers” for saying things differently than he would have when he gets caught doing so) … but he’s arguably functioned in office as a slightly cranky, but otherwise fairly typical, Republican congresscritter.
    Paul has drained untold millions out of the libertarian movement and the Libertarian Party over the years by talking a good line and casting strategic votes on the floor of the US House against spending bills — bills that he knows will pass without his vote; bills he’s already packed with pork that he can take credit for with his corporate sponsors and his home-district constituents, while denying responsibility for when he addresses the various pools of “small government” donors he’s been playing like a fiddle for so long.

  17. I think this is a lot more realistic than Ron Paul’s chances in 2008. Richardson has at least been a governor. It’s hard to make the leap from the House to the White House directly.

  18. Robert

    I think you win some sort of understatement prize.

  19. I moved to Albuquerque a few months ago after 12 years in Portland, OR hoping to escape some of the creeping nanny state laws that are starting to ruin Oregon and particularly Portland. I came here hoping that some of what Gary Johnson had done to turn around this State was still intact but it appears that is not the case as the legislature, with Richardson’s tacit approval at worst, is back to turning poor ol’ New Mexico into a budding Third World police state. In fact, some long time locals I’ve recently encountered have expressed that this is precisely the case because he is running for president and now refer to the State as the “Land of Entrapment”. Now I understand he governs the whole state, but obviously much of the power is centered in Albuquerque. And in past two years, the police and government powers that be have initiated highly legally questionable DWI roadblocks that seem to target minorities based on their locations, a red-light camera moving violation program with the assistance and prodding of a private company that supplies the product that has been railed against by the ACLU who is challenging it in the courts and finally arguably the most police-friendly and regressive DWI enforcement policy in the nation as well as an extremely harsh prison system. Again, Richardson may not be directly responsible for this but as you mentioned he is well know for being involved in everything here so he knows the score. And with a just implemented smoking ban in Albuquerque it is clear the nanny state is alive and well in the supposedly individual freedom loving SW part of the nation. Based on this, any libertarian credentials one might bestow upon him are highly questionable. Too bad the extremely rational Gary Johnson was limited to two terms here and further I wonder why he is not running for President instead of Bill Richardson.

  20. Jerry

    I just realized that you mean that the bloggers here are contributing sweat to Ron Paul’s campaign, right? But don’t they already get paid to blabber?

  21. I don’t know how one can seriously look to take the knees out from the best democratic candidate in the race while simultaneously idolizing ron paul. They’re both fine candidates by the standards of their respective parties, but paul’s religiousity, ativism, and goldbuggery easily equal the faults (and they are) dave cites here.

  22. “Who on earth could get the nod from the Libertarian party who wouldn’t merit a protest vote?”

    Maybe Clint Eastwood. He could be a major 3rd party contender on the Libertarian ticket.

  23. Edward, I’m guessing you get paid to blabber?

    It would explain how you’re independently wealthy.

  24. Sal Paradise:

    ZING!

  25. Sal

    Bingo!

  26. Not likely to win but not impossible.

    With a current 3rd place in NH:

    http://www.wmur.com/download/2007/0718/13706077.pdf

    and a recent 3rd in IA ahead of Obama, Richardson is starting to break into the Top-Tier.

    And though not stressed in the article, he also has shown strong civil libertarian views as well as supporting economic liberties.

  27. Go for it, but send the poor sap some cash.

    Ah, but I have. And I intend to do so again before the Florida primary. I might even volunteer, if the Libertate Bunch can spare me.

  28. Hmmm. I just looked my contribution up. It isn’t there. I donated at least two months ago.

  29. Jack,

    goldbuggery is a fault?

  30. ProL,

    was it more than $200?

  31. Put it this way: Richardson certainly isn’t my ideal candidate, but if he got the nomination he’d have a pretty fair crack at my vote against any of the possible Republican nominies with the exception of Ron Paul.

  32. There is one chief executive from New Mexico who should be running:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_E._Johnson

    Paul/Johnson 2008 – now that is a dream ticket – not Hillary/Obama.

  33. “and a recent 3rd in IA ahead of Obama, Richardson is starting to break into the Top-Tier.”

    Maybe that’s why Hillary is wanting the debates to be limited to the first tier. She doesn’t want Richardson to catch on with the centrists.

  34. robc,

    Ah. No, it wasn’t. I didn’t see it, but I assume there’s a minimum contribution to get listed.

  35. What I got from this is:

    “Libertarians shouldn’t vote for Richardson because he’s not a libertarian.”

    No kidding. But is he the best Dem candidate? I don’t know yet, but how about this for the standard:

    The candidate least likely to make you vomit while saying his/her name.

    By that standard, I see Richardson and Paul as the only viable options.

  36. So he’s for the free market. Big deal. He’s still a UN lackey and would never get my vote. Who even knew he was Latino?

    He was breathing down my neck a few weeks ago and I did not know until today.

  37. Paul has drained untold millions out of the libertarian movement and the Libertarian Party over the years by talking a good line and casting strategic votes on the floor of the US House against spending bills — bills that he knows will pass without his vote; bills he’s already packed with pork that he can take credit for with his corporate sponsors and his home-district constituents, while denying responsibility for when he addresses the various pools of “small government” donors he’s been playing like a fiddle for so long.

    Ah, so Ron Paul fails the Purity Test. If he’s not totally with us, he’s against us. Good thing that our ideas are so massively popular that we don’t need to worry about pesky things like “political reality” or anything.

    Even if everything you said about Dr. Paul is true (which it very well might be), I still think that he’s a better choice than any other major party candidate. And given the LP’s focus on political purity rather than political reality, he has a better chance of injecting a hint of libertarian ideas into the national debate than any Libertarian candidate. Dr. Paul actually gets media coverage; LP candidates, if they get any coverage, get the “look at those crackpots” coverage (which, frankly, we libertarians often deserve).

    As for your little “who donated money” purity test . . . well, given that we’re libertarians, shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that Reason staffers (and other bloggers) are spending their money on things that will actually make their lives better, rather than wasting money on political campaigns? Seems that you’ve bought into the statist idea that politicians deserve protection money from the sheeple. I mean, what kind of libertarian are you, who contributes to political campaigns?

    Seriously, is money the only way to measure a person’s support of a political candidate? There are myriad reasons why someone might not contribute, not least among them that they simply might not have the money. Or at least not the $200 needed to show up on the donor lists. People do have other things to spend money on, you know. Or maybe you don’t, if you’re independently wealthy.

    Honestly, you simply must try harder. Dan T. has established high standards for trolling here; please try to uphold them.

  38. ProL,

    $200 is the minimum that they have to collect employment info and etc, so that is probably the minimum for the list.

  39. Thomas Knapp was correct in many ways. While some libertarians have some lovefest with Ron Paul and think he is some courageous straight-talker, he certainly panders to whatever group is convenient and ( IMHO) seems more comfortable appealing to the ultra-conservative cranky ( racist, possibly) old white guy market. His “consistent principled” message depends on who is donating the money.

    He has plenty of opportunities to TRULY be a persuasive straight talker and speak to groups outside of the white Christian farmers, but doesnt really take advantage of it. He also wastes opportunities to actually explain the GOOD points of individualism/libertarianism as they pertain to issues people actually care about ( like healthcare). I think it’s stupid for a doctor to just say ” I never accepted Medicaid” without offering any alternatives, for example. I see people cmmenting on blogs that Dr. Paul would treat “needy” people for reduced fees, but I have never seen him say anything like that or present the real-life alternatives to government assistance,etc.

    Ignoring the NAACP and Urban League invitations, doesnt help either IMO.

    Eric Dondero is an idiot, but I think there is some validity in his statements about Paul regarding how his constituents view him compared to how libertarians regard him.

    And when it comes down to it, he has decided to merely be a Buchanan-ish angry, isolationist, ultra-conservative, white guy candidate. And his support will reflect this.

  40. “He has plenty of opportunities to TRULY be a persuasive straight talker and speak to groups outside of the white Christian farmers, but doesnt really take advantage of it. He also wastes opportunities to actually explain the GOOD points of individualism/libertarianism as they pertain to issues people actually care about ( like healthcare). I think it’s stupid for a doctor to just say ” I never accepted Medicaid” without offering any alternatives, for example. I see people cmmenting on blogs that Dr. Paul would treat “needy” people for reduced fees, but I have never seen him say anything like that or present the real-life alternatives to government assistance,etc.”

    I do wish he or some other Republicans would speak out on this issue and educate the public on alternatives to the Democrats’ plans of socialized medicine.

  41. Bill Richardson is about as libertarian as most people excitedly claim Bill Maher is; that is until they open their mouths and the Liberal Democrat platitudes start pouring out.

  42. JJ3,

    His constituents re-elected his again and again with an ever increasing majority, so I think that indicates what they think of Ron Paul

  43. I’ve been waiting a week for Weigel to get the vapors over Richardson’s maricone crack like he did macaca, but it’s like Richardson has some sort of inoculation that Allen didn’t. Go team!

  44. I’ve been waiting a week for Weigel to get the vapors over Richardson’s maricone crack like he did macaca, but it’s like Richardson has some sort of inoculation that Allen didn’t. Go team!

    The difference is that Richardson apologized for the comments whereas Allen initially said he’d made the word up, then was forced to admit it was a French word, then apologized, then tried to get sympathy by declaring that his mother was Jewish. It was so bumbling and weird that it became a more interesting story.

  45. I’m more interested to know how Dave can work with an editor who supports the DH rule. That’s against natural law, if you ask me.

  46. According the FEC records, none of the big-name libertarians who blabber on about Ron Paul here have sent him a cent.

    Because “big-name libertarians” are notoriously wealthy. They’re raking in those journalist dollars!

  47. Thanks for printing a little more information about Richardson than I’ve encountered in the popular press. I kind of like the guy as a personality, but knowing that he identifies as a “market Democrat” and has been endorsed (grudgingly, albeit) by libertarians, and has also worked for Kissinger Associates — makes me far less likely to send him money. Guess I’ll have to figure which of Edwards, Clinton or Obama will pull the party farther in the evil, socialistic direction. And them write them a very large check.

  48. I’ve thought for some time now that while Dr. Paul makes a fine libertarian symbol in Congress, Dana Rohrabacher and Floyd Flake have been more effective. Instead of being a clean Dr. No visible to the movement, they’ve gotten down & dirty and done what actually had to be done to advance liberty or retard the advance of tyranny. I’d rather a Congressman be the swing vote in committee on an amendment, no matter how minor, than to simply prevent a bill from passing unanimously on the floor.

  49. “David Weigel wonders if libertarians should embrace presidential contender Governor Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico).”

    The stereotypical image of libertarians like myself is that we are all a bunch of dopeheads. I haven’t smoked weed since the first Bush administration.

    After listening to the idea of supporting a guy who signed a ban on smoking a legal product (tobacco) on private property (bars) espoused on a Libertarian forum…maybe they’re right.

    What are you high, David?

    Sorry that this is the essence of my first post here. I’ve been lurking for quite some time. I’ll do better. But geez Louise people.

  50. “Bill believes that people should have freedom to live their lives the way we want to live them,” says Ned Farquhar, who helped write the governor’s campaign autobiography, Between Worlds, and is working closely with him on an environment-focused sequel. “That’s the whole basis of this society, that we ought to respect each other’s rights. He’s seen the tyranny of the majority, and I think it’s committed him to protecting the rights of minorities, from gay rights to gun rights.”

    Obviously, Matt and Trey wrote this article for Reason and put David’s name on it. It’s a spoof. Satire. Very funny guys. Great stuff as usual.

  51. The dem ticket has been set for a loong time, at least since 2000, Hil and Bill(Richardson).

  52. In 20 years i might vote for him….or is it 18..

    Anyway I am still on that “never vote for a democrat in the next 20 years unless I see a sea change” pledge.

    This guy is cool…but not a sea change.

    If he gets the nomination I will still vote Libertarian.

  53. Too bad the extremely rational Gary Johnson was limited to two terms here and further I wonder why he is not running for President instead of Bill Richardson.

    This could only be said by someone who moved to NM after Johnson left. Johnson was hands off to the point of assuring that things that needed his attention didn’t get it. Now if something needed the attention of his former company in the form of a large construction contract, he paid close attention. Johnson was only right in his position on the drug war, for which he deserves credit.

    FWIW, Richardson cut taxes as nearly his first act after taking over from Johnson.

  54. And apparently Cato likes him for fiscal responsibility. Hmmm…

    New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who earned a B, is the highest scoring Democrat in the nation and one of the best governors overall. The report card praises Richardson for cutting taxes and strictly limiting increases in state spending.

    http://www.cato.org/new/03-05/03-01-05r.html

  55. Johnson says. “He plays up the fact that he cuts taxes when, if you add up all the fees he’s approved, there’s been a net tax increase.

    This is, of course, not entirely accurate.

    1. Users fees are not taxes and seem a good way to address the issue of free ridership.
    2. When looked at over time, even with the fee increases lumped as taxes, the tax cuts result in an overall decrease in tax burden.
    3. The tax code is far less regressive than it used to be, shifting the tax burden that remains to those that can better afford it.

  56. Is Bill Richardson closer to being a libertarian Democrat than Rudy Giuliani is to being a libertarian Republican?

    Discuss.

  57. Bill Richardson only has to not be Ruholla Khomeini to be closer to libertarian than Giuliani.

  58. .. Richardson almost had my vote with Medical Marijuana but he lost it with the smoking ban ..

    .. he talks the talk but he doesn’t walk the walk ..

    .. Hobbit

  59. “Too bad the extremely rational Gary Johnson was limited to two terms here and further I wonder why he is not running for President instead of Bill Richardson.

    This could only be said by someone who moved to NM after Johnson left. Johnson was hands off to the point of assuring that things that needed his attention didn’t get it. Now if something needed the attention of his former company in the form of a large construction contract, he paid close attention. Johnson was only right in his position on the drug war, for which he deserves credit.

    FWIW, Richardson cut taxes as nearly his first act after taking over from Johnson.”

    I’ll definitely defer to your expressed experience as a resident of NM during the (Gary) Johnson administration. However, I feel comfortable in using the ol’ libertarian adage, “The government that governs least, governs best” not matter where I live nor doing what time frame. Can you embellish what was it that needed his attention-more governing by the folks who like to limit personal freedoms or something else?

  60. Democrats are missing a big opportunity by not campaigning for spending and tax cuts. With the Republicans losing all credibility on spending, the Democrats could solidify their hold on power for a long time with a smaller government push.

    Sound unlikely? Federal spending has doubled since the “smaller government” Republicans took over 1994. Even with inflation, there is a lot of room to cut spending and still push for traditional Democratic spending priorities.

    Just withdrawing from Iraq would go a long way toward balancing the budget. Too bad the current Democratic contenders (including Richardson) already have plans to spend those (borrowed) funds elsewhere, instead of reducing the deficit.

    The three biggest issues for the significant number of libertarian-leaning voters are war, civil liberties, and spending. If the Democrats took the lead in making government less expensive, they could win on all three counts.

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