The Real Bill Richardson

Is the presidential contender a libertarian Democrat?


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.