THE BLOG
01/13/2011 05:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gary Johnson: 'The Next Ron Paul' or a Whole Lot More?

Only a year or so remains until the 2012 New Hampshire primary, and for those of us who live in the Granite State, campaign season is already beginning and potential candidates are already jockeying for position.

At this point, it does not seem likely that President Obama will face a serious challenge from within his own party. Thus, it appears that the candidates swarming New Hampshire in 2011 will all be running as Republicans. If every candidate who's expected to run does so, Republican primary voters will have a deep and ideologically diverse field of candidates from which to choose.

We might recall that in 2007 and early 2008, there was only the very beginning of a visible ideological split in the GOP - a split which has since grown into a fully-developed schism pitting "tea partiers" and other limited government advocates against the establishment on many issues. With the notable exception of Ron Paul, the 2008 GOP primary candidates mostly continued to preach the Bush-Cheney era party line with little apparent regard for the long-term sustainability of U.S. foreign and domestic policies. Despite his not-always-hopeful-sounding campaign rhetoric, Paul surprised mainstream observers with the level of support and enthusiasm his campaign was able to attract. We should also thank him for contributing some of the only memorable, thought-provoking moments of the GOP debates.

It's true that Paul only received about 9% of overall votes cast nationwide, but his impact on the race was undeniable. He fulfilled the role of a modern-day Socrates within the GOP, forcing Republican voters to reconsider the wisdom and the very conservative-ness of positions most had previously accepted without question: blanket support for the foreign policy decisions that followed the 9/11 tragedy, for the Federal Reserve System, the "War on Drugs," the PATRIOT ACT, etc.

Every Republican and every American benefits when questions like these are thoughtfully raised in an open forum, but rather than thanking Paul, the establishment-friendly candidates took turns attacking him for his disloyalty to conventional party wisdom. Nobody forced Paul to drink hemlock, but finally, just days before the primary, Fox News did resort to outright censorship when it refused to allow Paul to participate in the final televised debate. This was a dark moment in the history of U.S. media. As I observed in a blog published the day of the primary (Jan. 6, 2008), "The decision to exclude Paul was so indefensible, following his record-breaking fundraising efforts and a double-digit result in Iowa, that the New Hampshire GOP withdrew as a partner in the forum."

The New Hampshire GOP may have been more willing than Fox News to tolerate Ron Paul as a candidate, but Paul's 8% finish was still an enormous disappointment to the hundreds of activists who had swarmed to the "Live Free or Die" state to campaign for the candidate they admired.

However, Paul's influence increased dramatically after he was eliminated as a candidate for the 2008 nomination. He kick-started the movement that came to be known as the Tea Party, and after the housing bubble burst in 2008 (a catastrophe Paul and other "Austrian school" economists had been virtually alone in predicting), many of his views quickly ascended to a position of relevance within mainstream discourse and even within the Republican Party. Once completely ignored by the media, Paul suddenly became a frequent guest on cable news shows, and two years later, his son Rand pulled off two enormous election upsets (beating an establishment Republican in the primary and an establishment Democrat in the general) to become a U.S. Senator.

Debates between the 2008 candidates demonstrated that the Republican Party establishment had not yet moved on from the Bush-Cheney era of ideology, strategy, and rhetoric, but today, only a few years later, much appears to have changed. As one piece of evidence proving that fact, we need only look to the friendly reception former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson received on his recent trip to New Hampshire.

Johnson has been touring the country and doing media appearances as honorary chairman of his "Our America Initiative," a platform which allows him to raise money and promote his ideas. Many expect he will soon announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

Journalists at New Republic, Politico, and elsewhere have already wondered aloud if Johnson might become "the next Ron Paul," but for now he seems to be focused on just being Gary Johnson, and this strategy already appears to be paying dividends in New Hampshire. Johnson recently spent a week in the Granite State and was treated very respectfully by both the mainstream media and members of the Republican establishment.

A Jan. 6 editorial in The Concord Monitor, one of New Hampshire's most influential newspapers, exemplified the response Johnson has been getting. After meeting with Johnson, the Monitor described him as "a thoughtful politician with serious, if provocative, policy proposals" and concluded by saying "We would be pleased to learn that he anted up his $1,000 to run in the 2012 New Hampshire primary.

Like Paul, whose 2008 candidacy he endorsed, Johnson believes the United States is broke and in danger of experiencing an unprecedented economic meltdown. He advocates serious cuts to the federal budget ("I want to balance the budget tomorrow," he says), including the military budget, and he calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnson also advocates for the legalization and regulation of marijuana. Are Republicans in New Hampshire responding well to these not-traditionally-Republican messages?

The answer, according to Johnson's lone New Hampshire staff member, is "so far, so good." Manchester resident Brinck Slattery took his first job in politics as a field coordinator for Paul's campaign in 2007, and he accepted a job with Johnson's organization in November of 2010.

"People have been responding very well to Governor Johnson and showing him a lot of respect," Slattery observed. "It certainly appears that New Hampshire GOP voters are ready to shake their party up a bit and consider some fresh, thoughtful policy proposals."

Whereas Paul was never embraced by mainstream Republican groups and his candidacy was only endorsed by three state legislators, Johnson was guest of honor last week at the New Hampshire Young Republicans' Christmas Party, and a weekday luncheon across the street from the New Hampshire state house drew no fewer than 18 state representatives interested in speaking with Johnson.

It's too early to make any serious predictions about Johnson's chances in 2012, but these early indications suggest he could in fact become more than just "the next Ron Paul." If his ideas continue to resonate with the voters he meets, it's easy to imagine he could surprise and become a serious contender for the GOP nomination.