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The Rodney Dangerfield of Politics: Gary Johnson, His Message and Evolving

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GARY JOHNSON 2012 LIBERTARIAN
AP

Rodney Dangerfield said he got such little respect that as a kid his yo-yo wouldn't come back. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson can identify. He's been excluded from 14 of the 16 Republican presidential debates, even when his poll numbers were better than candidates being included.

While I intended my interview with him to focus on his recent support for marriage equality for gay couples, the easy discussion moved on to many topics. Johnson sees himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Most polls show that a large percentage of voters fall into this category. A majority of voters supports depoliticized markets and balanced budgets, a majority supports gay marriage, and half the public wants to legalize marijuana, which is a plurality. A majority thinks sending troops to Iraq was a mistake and wants out. You'd think Gary Johnson would be a natural choice for them.

Gary thinks so, as well. "I hate to stereotype, but I think the majority of Americans consider themselves fiscally conservative and socially liberal. That position is not being represented by anybody, and I would like to think I represent that group. But I haven't been given the opportunity," referring to his systematic exclusion from Republican debates to date.

He also thinks most Republicans are not really social conservatives, but they "are not activists, and those who are activists are social conservatives." He says he fears that because of the grip by social conservatives on the party, "many Republicans are becoming independents."

One place Johnson did get respect was New Mexico. Not only did the state, with more Democrats than Republicans on the voters rolls, elect him to office, but they also reelected him by an even greater margin the second time, but then term limits made him ineligible to run again. A poll in the states of the various GOP candidates showed Johnson to be the only Republican popular in his own home state.

One reason, perhaps, is that he didn't govern as a Republican. Gary told me, "I was the libertarian governor of New Mexico under the guise of being a Republican. And it worked."

Gary is considering bolting from the Republicans, not because he thinks it will get him elected, but because he's trying to get a message out about fiscal sanity and respecting the rights of all people. In a nutshell, you don't have to be a bigot to support balanced budgets and fiscal restraint, nor do you have to be an advocate of tax-and-spend to support equality of rights for all people. While the small-l libertarian would consider running as a big-L Libertarian, he acknowledges that the party has had trouble. He says, "The ideas are spot on. But ideas are one thing; implementing them is another."

Johnson also says he understands the widespread discontent in this country. He said that a lot of people are "outraged over the fact that things are not fair. We don't have a level playing field. Corporations pay for their loopholes, and the politicians are there with their hands out to take the payments." Johnson says, "The blame is the status quo. It's Democrats and Republicans both." Perhaps this explains why both his party and the Democratic-leaning media prefer to keep him out of the debates. Even after getting into two debates, the rules were then changed to required a candidate to be in three previous debates in order to qualify for further debates. Anytime he successfully got into a debate, the rules were changed to stop it from happening again.

Johnson sees his recent announcement of support for gay marriage as a natural part of being open-minded and letting one's positions evolve with the facts. While previously he supported civil unions, he realized that "it sounds well and good, but you would have to go through every law to change it every place the word 'marriage' was mentioned. The reality of what I was saying was it would be difficult to implement, line by line, where 'marriage' appeared." As for marriage equality itself, "I always had an open mind on it. I think the right position is gay marriage as opposed to gay unions; otherwise, it's just a lot of words."

Johnson's press release said, "I simply cannot find a legitimate justification for federal laws, such as the Defense of Marriage Act, which 'define' marriage." He said, "As I have examined this issue, consulted with folks on all sides, and viewed it through the lens of individual freedom and equal rights, it has become clear to me that denying those rights and benefits to gay couples is discrimination, plain and simple."

Gary's statement indicated that another point of his evolution was that marriage was previously viewed as a moral and religious issue, but now "more and more Americans are viewing it as a question of liberty and freedom. That evolution is important, and the time has come for us to align our marriage laws with the notion that every individual should be treated equally."

Perhaps, we have uncovered why Gary Johnson just can't get respect. When it comes to his pragmatic libertarianism, he believes people should evolve with the facts. But, when it comes to the activists that control his party, they just don't believe in evolution -- ever.

Even if a Quixotic third-party run doesn't get him elected, that won't bother Johnson. In his mind this whole venture is about the message, not the messenger, and it always has been. His disappointment is not about the nomination but that he wanted his message to be heard.