Earlier today, I talked with Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson for about half an hour. Here's an edited version of my conversation with the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico. The topics we covered include whether he supports carbon taxes and mandatory vaccines (no to both), agrees with Hillary Clinton's characterization of Donald Trump as racist (yes), and if he thinks there is any chance he will crack 15 percent in the national polls that will earn him a ticket to the presidential debates ("We're very optimistic").
Johnson, who ran for president on the LP ticket in 2012 and pulled more than 1 million votes, says that the response his campaign is getting this time around is a "transformation." He attributes this to an "appetite" voters have for a different approach to politics, one that combines liberal social views and conservative fiscal views. He is certainly the only presidential candidate who believes "taxes to me are like a death plague," blacks are systematically denied equal opportunities in America, minimum-wage laws punish low-skilled workers, and marijuana should be legalized.
"We are two former Republican governors who served in heavily Democratic states," Johnson told me while discussing the reaction to the way he and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, mash-up positions normally associated with either the right or the left. "What that meant is that we pissed everybody off, and because we pissed everybody off, we both got re-elected by bigger margins. We pissed off the left, we pissed off the right, but really where we came down was right in the middle. Where we came down on was right where everybody is, right where the majority of people are at."—Nick Gillespie
NICK GILLESPIE: Earlier this week, you suggested you were in favor of a carbon tax or fee. Yesterday, at a rally in New Hampshire (video here), you said you were against it. What is your position on carbon taxes?
GARY JOHNSON: [A carbon tax] sounds good in theory, but it wouldn't work in practice. I never called it a tax. I called it a fee. As it was presented to me, this was the way to reduce carbon and actually reduce costs to reduce carbon. Under that premise—lower costs, better outcomes—you can always count on me to support that [sort of] notion. In theory it sounds good, but the reality is that it's really complex and it won't really accomplish that. So, no support for a carbon fee. I never raised one penny of tax as governor of New Mexico, not one cent in any area. Taxes to me are like a death plague.
GILLESPIE: You do believe that climate change is happening and that human activity adds to it. Does that mean it is an issue that should be addressed by government policy?
JOHNSON: Well, I'll agree with the first two, but I'm a skeptic that government policy can address this. The United States contributes 16 percent of the contribution of carbon in the world…
GILLESPIE: So you would be against the United States unilaterally making any kind of move that puts a huge economic disadvantage that also wouldn't really mitigate carbon?
JOHNSON: If there is any way we can address this issue without the loss of U.S. jobs, my ears are open.
GILLESPIE: Let's talk about vaccines. There are no federal laws mandating vaccines, and that's how it should be, as far as you're concerned.
GILLESPIE: Various states treat vaccines differently, and you're not wild about the range of individual choice and opt-out provisions, but you do believe it's a state-level decision—or certainly that it's not a federal-level decision.
GILLESPIE: There are people who say vaccines cause autism [and other problems] or that vaccines don't work. Are you in that camp?
JOHNSON: No, I chose to have my children vaccinated. I understand all the concerns that some people have, but for me personally, I made a decision to have my children vaccinated. I want people to make decisions and I believe in [opt-outs]. With the exception of a few states, everyone has an opt-out. But I also want to say that, as president of the United States, if I am confronted with a zombie apocalypse that will happen unless the total herd is totally immunized, I will support [mandatory vaccinations].
GILLESPIE: Yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in which she explicitly said that Donald Trump was racist and that he has brought a racist presence into the Republican Party. A year ago, you told Reason something very similar. You said Trump's comments about Mexicans and his views on immigration were racist. Do you agree with Hillary Clinton that Donald Trump is a racist?
JOHNSON: Well, if it walks like a duck, if it talks like a duck, it's a duck.
GILLESPIE: As a former Republican governor, how does that make you feel about the current state of the GOP?
JOHNSON: It makes me feel like I think more than half of Republicans feel: This is not representative of Republicans.
GILLESPIE: Do you think the Republican Party is going to be permanently damaged by Donald Trump's candidacy?
JOHNSON: I do.
GILLESPIE: What do you think of his recent appeals to black voters? He's been saying to African Americans that the Democratic Party hasn't really helped them much. That everything in their lives has gotten worse under Barack Obama and that Hillary Clinton is not their champion. Do you agree with Trump that Democratic Party policies haven't really benefited the black community?
JOHNSON: I do. Both parties are engaged in pandering. The libertarian approach—equal opportunity—isn't that what you really want? But I'd argue that equal opportunity currently does not exist.
GILLESPIE: How does it not exist, and what policies would you enact to make it a reality? Is it a question of ending a drug war that disproportionately impacts blacks, promoting school choice so they can escape chronically bad schools, and ending minimum-wage laws that price low-skilled workers out of getting their first jobs?
JOHNSON: All of what you just mentioned. Let me offer up a story. I was on Fox News' The Five a couple of days ago with Eric Bolling. I made the statement that "black lives matter" and Eric chimed in to say, "All lives matter." It's not a criticism of him, it's just indicative of the conversation [about race and politics]. I said, "Yes, all lives do matter, but blacks are getting shot at the rate of six times that whites are. If you're of color and you're arrested, there's a four times greater likelihood that you'll go to jail than if you're white. Eric said, "Blacks commit eight times the crime." My answer was little muddied, but I think I got to my point. Yes, blacks are being arrested, they are being charged, and they are being convicted at eight times the rate of whites. If that same scrutiny were applied to you and I as whites, we would have those same results. That's the awareness [of unequal treatment] that doesn't currently exist.
GILLESPIE: The set of ideas, mind-sets, and positions that your campaign is putting out there doesn't have a home in contemporary Republican and Democratic politics. The way things are is that if you're against the minimum wage because you think it hurts unskilled workers, you've got to be a conservative. But then you're saying, "I care about blacks and they are having a tougher time in America than whites." So then you must be on the left. Do you feel the framework you and Bill Weld are presenting is getting through? Is it changing the way people think about politics?
JOHNSON: I think we're getting through in a huge way. Between Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, we've got a reach of 300 million. We had a rally the other night in Vermont, and there was a crowd of 300 or 400 people, very enthusiastic people. Our Facebook Live stream of the rally got 300,000 views on Facebook Live in two hours. 300,000! Clearly there's an appetite for what we're talking about. Bill Weld says this all the time: We are two former Republican governors who served in heavily Democratic states. What that meant is that we pissed everybody off, and because we pissed everybody off, we both got re-elected by bigger margins. We pissed off the left, we pissed off the right, but really where we came down was right in the middle. Where we came down on was right where everybody is, right where the majority of people are at.
GILLESPIE: A writer at the conservative website The Federalist recently said that your embrace of a carbon tax clearly meant you are "a left-wing candidate." Do you consider yourself a left-winger?
JOHNSON: Well, no. But you know, tomorrow you will see an article that says this guy is a right-wing radical. Bravo.
GILLESPIE: Let's talk about your stance on religious-liberty issues, which has angered a lot people on the right and many libertarians. Your position is that you essentially want to extend anti-discrimination protections for race and gender to cover sexual orientation when it comes to businesses that are open to the public. Yet you support an opt-out for vaccinations. Why not support an opt-out for the religious owner of a business who doesn't want to bake a gay Nazi wedding cake?
JOHNSON: Because it would create a new exemption for discrimination. At the end of the day we're just going to agree to disagree. But you bring me specific legislation dealing with a cake baker not having to decorate a cake for a Nazi and I'll sign it.
GILLESPIE: Let's talk about Hillary Clinton. In response to being called a bigot and a racist by her, Donald Trump said that she was fundamentally not trustworthy. Do you agree with him on that?
JOHNSON: Yes, I agree with him.
GILLESPIE: So you're in a weird position, aren't you? You actually agree with both Hillary and Donald, but you don't think either should be president.
JOHNSON: I agree. I had always surmised that Bill Clinton's speaking fees—which hadn't been highly publicized over the years—were tied to payoffs for what he had done as president. I've always felt that, OK, this is the way of paying him back. What I've come to discover is that it was also access to Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State that was being sold. It's pay-to-play, textbook pay-to-play. That's not right. Having never held political office before [becoming governor], I had no idea of what was possible [in terms of selling access and favors]. For me, it had everything to do with doing the right thing. For me, it had everything to do with analyzing legislation—would this actually improve lives or would it not? If it didn't, I was going to veto it. If it was going to make things better, even incrementally, I signed on to it.
GILLESPIE: Do you have a particular instance that you can point to with Hillary Clinton where she accepted a donation to the Clinton Foundation in regard to this action or this access?
JOHNSON: View the documentary that's online right now: Clinton Cash. The preponderance of what they break down [in the film] clearly shows to me that this was an ongoing activity.
GILLESPIE: You still have a lot of ground to cover to reach 15 percent in the national polls that will get you into the presidential debates. What do you think your odds are at this point?
JOHNSON: We're very optimistic. Our reach on social media is doubling every three weeks right now. That simply means that for the first time people are hearing the name Gary Johnson. In the five polls [being used by the Commission on Presidential Debates], we're smack dab at 10 percent. Not 10.1 percent, not 9 percent, but smack dab at 10 percent. And if you look at those polls six weeks ago, the average would have probably been between 6 percent and 7 percent. Currently, we're on the ballot in 45 states and we have 100 percent belief that we'll be on the ballot in all the states and [the District in Columbia]. This campaign is really a transformation. We showed up in New Hampshire the other day to a big crowd. I ran in the 2012 cycle, and I think I got more media at that event than I got in the entire 2012 cycle. Everything is changed right now from an attention standpoint. Whether or not that means we end up in the debates and getting to make a difference on the stage is still a question. But right now? I'm as optimistic as ever.
GILLESPIE: Thank your for time.