Orlando, Fla.—On January 29 the Miami Herald ran a full-page ad excoriating Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney for their "abysmal" constitutional records. The ad wasn't paid for by Ron Paul or his supporters, but by the American Civil Liberties Union, which invited the GOP field to its annual staff convention in Orlando to "face the nation's largest gathering of real experts on the Constitution and explain yourselves." Neither Gingrich nor Romney showed up.
Gary Johnson chuckled when a member of the ACLU's excutive board showed him the ad on Sunday. Had the last six months gone differently—had Johnson been included in more televised debates, had a media gaggle tracked and reported his every move as he went door to door in New Hampshire—he would likely be campaigning as a GOP candidate in Florida this week, and perhaps not speaking to a small room of ACLU staffers.
Alas, the avalanche of earned media he anticipated for biking several hundred miles across the Live Free Or Die State never materialized, so Johnson dropped out of the GOP and joined the Libertarian Party, where he is, for the first time since his days as a gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico, a frontrunner. "I'm polling at 73 percent among libertarians," Johnson told me before his speech. "I've never known what that's like."
After five minutes of small talk in a makeshift green room at the Doubletree Inn, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero introduced Johnson to a crowd of 100 or so ACLU staffers as the most conservative former governor running for president and the top scorer on the group's policy scorecard. I expected Johnson to talk civil liberties right out of the gate, much the way GOP frontrunners Gingrich and Romney have tailored their speeches throughout Florida based on the demographics of a given crowd. But instead of leading with the drug war, gay marriage, or indefinite detention, Johnson started his speech the same way he starts most of his speeches: by describing his commitment to cutting federal spending by 43 percent.
As a result, the ACLU audience barely made a peep for the first 12 minutes of Johnson's speech, though one person gesticulated approval, OWS-style, when Johnson said he'd cut the military's budget and end Obama's interventionism. It wasn't until he got started on legalizing marijuana that the crowd (figuratively) lit up. A steady stream of applause followed Johnson's declarations after that.
"I support gay marriage equality. I support repealing the PATRIOT Act. I would have vetoed the Department of Homeland Security, because I think it's redundant. I would've never established the department of—the TSA agency. I think we should end the practices of torture. Period. I can understand the complexities in the following, but I think we should end the practices of detainment without being charged. There is nothing I want to see the government come in and fix with the Internet."
Johnson also made a point throughout the evening of highlighting the differences between himself and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who sought and received Johnson's endorsement in 2008.
"I don't think that Ron Paul is going to win the Republican nomination. For the most part, we are talking about the same message, but we do have differences. And when he drops out, or finds an end to the Republican primary, I don't see this agenda moving forward," Johnson said.
"And I think it's important to point out differences between myself and Ron Paul. I don't support building a fence across the border, I do support gay marriage equality, I do believe in a strong national defense. I do believe in our alliance with Israel, for example. And I think military alliances are key to reducing military spending by 43 percent and still provide for a strong national defense. And I believe in a woman's right to choose."
The crowd went nuts over that last one.
Johnson closed his remarks with something I'd never seen him do before: a bit of audience-specific pandering.
"I want to thank you for all that you do. For your activism. As I've said, ever since I've been governor, 'The ACLU: You don't like what they have to say or you like what they have to say, they're always right.'"
When the laughter died down, Johnson opened the floor for questions the way he has at so many other events. ""Now we'll start off with how unright I am, with any questions, any comments, and any insults you might have."
An ACLU staffer from New Mexico asked Johnson why, as governor, he refused to support a bill ending capital punishment. Johnson explained, as he has several times before, that the enthusiasm he had for capital punishment during his first term as governor was all but obliterated when he read up on the case of four members of the Vagos motorcycle gang who were wrongly convicted of murdering William Velten in 1974, and sentenced to death. Nearly two years after the gang members had been on death row, the real killer (a DEA informant) confessed to Velten's murder. Johnson, who wanted to limit capital punishment appeals to exactly two years, told the questioner that it occurred to him that his own policy, had it been in place in the 1970s, would have led to the execution of innocent people, and that capital punishment is simply "bad public policy."
At the end of the Q&A session (during which the bulk of the questions were about Johnson's time as governor) ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero asked Johnson what he'd say to ACLU card-carrying members who were concerned that a vote cast for Johnson would be a vote taken from Obama, and thus a vote for the GOP. "Do you run the risk, in other words, of being a Ralph Nader, given the fact that you have so much more coincidence with the president's agenda than with Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich?"
Without missing a beat, Johnson said, "I love the fact that's being asked, given that it's been asked on the other side all the time. 'You're going to take votes from Romney?' Oh yeah, all those medical marijuana patients in the GOP."
"I think the perception of the third party candidate is what you're pointing out, that you're taking votes from one side or the other. When the fact is, statistically third party candidates take equally from both sides, and then they take from a group, in this case independents who would ordinarily vote. Statistically, it ends up being a wash, though the perception is not that."
When Johnson finished answering, Romero led the audience in a round of applause that led to an extended standing ovation—something Johnson seldom received as a GOP candidate.
Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.