Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson appeared on Fox News Sunday this morning and was interviewed by Chris Wallace on topics ranging from his attempt to reach 15 percent in the five national polls that will get him on the stage for the presidential debates to his views on ISIS to his pledge to cut 20 percent of federal spending in his first budget.
Johnson said that he's averaging 10 percent in the polls the Commission on Presidential Debates will be using to set the roster for its debates. That's up sharply from a few weeks back, he said, "So we're optimistic that we're going to actually get into the debates. We're spending money right now in many states. In five states right now, I'm at 16 percent. So I'm just really optimistic."
The former two-term governor of New Mexico said that if he doesn't get in the debates, its "game over" in terms of "winning the election." Johnson laid out a scenario in which he and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, make it into the debates and create a situation in which the country rallies around them:
The object is to win outright. And it's not impossible that if we go into the presidential debates with the polarization of Clinton and Trump that we might actually run the table on all this. And I'm talking about me and Bill Weld, two former Republican governors re-elected in heavily Democrat states…. I don't think there's any arguing that we did make differences in our state being fiscally conservative, socially inclusive. I'll add to that, that we're really skeptical about intervening militarily to achieve regime change that I think has resulted in a less-safe world. So I think that we represent about 60 percent of Americans with that philosophical belief.
That is fanciful, to say the least, but then again, who would have thought that Donald Trump had a real shot at being the GOP nominee or that an independent socialist such as Bernie Sanders would give the anointed Democrat, Hillary Clinton, the run he gave her?
Wallace did a "lightning round" with Johnson on key issues because, as Wallace put it, "You say the key to your candidacy is if people sit down and compare you to Clinton and Trump on the issues, they're going to pick you."
Here's a summary of the Libertarian's responses:
JOHNSON: Free trade. Supporting [T]PP. It's a good thing. Free trade. The—more jobs… We're the only ones that support it.
JOHNSON: Make it as easy as possible to come into this country and work. To be able to get a work visa. A work visa should entail a background check and a Social Security card. Don't build a wall across the border. These are hard-working individuals that are taking jobs that U.S. citizens don't want….[For illegals already here,] they could…get a work visa, as long as they've been law abiding. With regard to citizenship, there needs to be a pathway to citizenship…. That's part of comprehensive immigration reform that Bill Weld and I think we can bring Democrats and Republicans to the table over.
Johnson has repeatedly proposed cutting the federal budget by 20 percent in his first year and eliminating departments of education, commerce, and homeland security, among others.
WALLACE: You don't think any of those agencies do any good?
JOHNSON: Well, in the case of Education, in the case of Commerce, and there are some vital functions in these agencies, but do they require an entire agency? I don't think so. But Education, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security. Why…is Homeland Security an agency unto itself? Shouldn't it be a part of the FBI? Those are the ones that I am advocating out of the chute.
JOHNSON: If I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate income tax, corporate tax. I would replace it with one federal consumption tax. I put up the fair tax as the template for how you accomplish one federal consumption tax. You're right about a consumption tax being regressive. The way that the fair tax deals with that is it issues everyone a "prebate" check of $200 a month that allows everyone to pay the consumption tax up to the point of the poverty level… Zero corporate tax, which you and I paid for, I maintain that that would create tens of millions of jobs and that it would also issue pink slips to 80 percent of Washington lobbyists.
JOHNSON: I do believe that if you want to look at ISIS, that they are regionally contained…. A poll among active military personnel two weeks ago, who do they favor for president of the United States? Me. So what are they saying? What are—what they're saying is judicious use of the military. If we're attacked, we're going to attack back. But the fact that we involve ourselves in regime change has resulted in the unintended consequence of making things worse, not better, and nobody's standing up to this. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, not intentional. They go in. They support the opposition in Libya and Syria. The oppositions aligned with ISIS. We arm the opposition. Now those arms are in ISIS' hands. This is the unintended consequence of our foreign policy…. [We're] going to continue to stay engaged in [battling ISIS], but there will be a void when that gets eliminated. We didn't even hear about ISIS until two years ago. This was al Qaeda until it became ISIS. And wipe out ISIS and it will be something else. Look, the biggest threat in the world right now is North Korea. We need to deal with the civil war in Syria. That's joining hands with Russia diplomatically to see that through. Biggest threat in the world, North Korea. We need to join arms—join hands with China to deal with that diplomatic…
Marijuana Policy (and heading up a company involved in certifying pot products)
JOHNSON: Marijuana products, which directly compete with legal prescription drugs on the medical front, don't kill anybody…. There needs to be research and development in this area that can't currently happen because marijuana is listed as a class one narcotic. As president of the United States, I would delist marijuana as a class one narcotic. This is going to be an issue that is left up to the states, just like alcohol. And then on the recreational side of this, Chris, I have always believed that legalizing marijuana will lead to less overall substance abuse because it's so much safer than everything else that's out this, starting with alcohol.
Wallace pushed Johnson on a number of answers—rightly, in my view. For instance, Johnson trotted out his regular line that he is not being elected dictator, so you need to take his policy preferences as hypothetical. To which Wallace answered:
WALLACE: When you say we're not going to be elected dictator, you're saying, don't take my policies seriously because they won't get through.
JOHNSON: Take them very seriously, but count on certainty that we're going to always support taxes going lower. We're going to always support being in business being easier. Rules and regulations not getting worse, getting better.
Johnson also pressed on another theme he hit heavily on Friday's Libertarian town hall on Fox Business' Stossel: That a Johnson/Weld administration would be in the best position to de-polarize Congress and force centrist-yet-libertarian solutions to pressing concerns such as immigration, entitlement reform, and foreign policy. Said Johnson:
Look, Hillary or Trump, isn't the polarization in Congress going to be greater than ever? Does anybody believe that anything is going to get better in Congress? Our pitch is the third alternative, which is a couple of libertarians in the middle, hiring a bipartisan administration. Everybody libertarian leaning. But I think you could make a case that that third scenario might work.
This last scenario, like the hopes of getting into the debates, is intriguing but seriously long-odds. Johnson was energetic in his appearance but seemed at moments unsure about his own positions (the governor stumbled when Wallace listed a series of government agencies and departments he said Johnson had pledged to cut and he seemed tentative in his knowledge of "ISIS-inspired" attacks in Europe). Wallace was right to call him out on the "I'm not being elected dictator" line, which seems a way to have things both ways: Here are my ideas but don't hold me to them.
If this is an election about changing things in a direction different from Donald Trump's mix of bullying nativsim and nationalism or Hillary Clinton's self-styled continuation of Barack Obama's policies, there's certainly room for a perspective that, as Johnson notes, roughly accords with large pluralities and majorities that support free trade, legal immigration (and a path to legalization for current illegals), broad reductions in federal government spending and regulations, and a foreign policy that is less adventurous. Johnson lays most or all of that out but also often misses opportunities to explain why and how these policies reflect a libertarian worldview that is particularly in synch with a 21st-century world.
If Johnson's success rests upon convincing sympathetic observers who aren't fully convinced that he's got the gravitas to be commander-in-chief and a force to be reckoned with on domestic policy, he still has a ways to go.
Here's an interview Reason TV with Johnson and Weld in July at FreedomFest, the largest annual gathering of libertarian-minded folks (for more on that, go here).