Can a Pro-Gay, Pot Legalizing Fiscal Conservative Win the White House?

Gary Johnson is not your typical presidential candidate. He is typical in that he was Governor of New Mexico for two terms, the maximum allowed by law. He is atypical in that he was elected as a Republican, beating the incumbent Democrat in a state with a 2-to-1 Democratic majority. He won with 50% of the vote the first time, and 55% the second time. Typically, he gave a speech in New Hampshire after declaring his candidacy; atypically, he had originally announced his candidacy via Twitter. And most atypically, he is the only presidential candidate to summit Mt. Everest.

Typical for a Republican, he was invited to Tea Party rallies, where he atypically advocated drug policy liberalization and support for immigration. Typically, he was invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where atypically he talked about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he was in a nearly fatal paragliding accident, breaking a rib, knee and vertebrae, he used marijuana for pain control. Not only does he admit inhaling, but jokes that he never exhaled.

I caught up with Gary Johnson at a party for him overlooking the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Johnson sounds like your typical Republican when he talks about balancing budgets, fiscal constraint and taxes. But he's stronger on social freedom than all but a handful of Democrats. Asked how he differs from the typical Republican Johnson quickly names five major differences:

  1. Gay rights
  2. Immigration
  3. Drug policy reform
  4. A woman's right to choose
  5. Ending the wars

Johnson spoke to a packed house of twenty- and thirty-something supporters. He hit hard on the dangers of the massive debt accumulated under the duo administrations of Bush and Obama. He told them he would get of Iraq and Afghanistan "tomorrow" and said, "I'm opposed to what we're doing in Libya A to Z." He said he was against the use of torture, didn't think we should hold people in detention with charges being filed and said that the war on terror is destroying rights at home.

If you think he sounds like Ron Paul, listen more carefully. Unlike Paul, Johnson said that had he been president he would have supported the Civil Rights Act. And when it comes to equality of rights for gays, he's for it, unlike Paul. Johnson told the crowd, "Gay rights isn't just a states' rights issue, it's a civil rights issue." One of his online commercials told supporters to imagine his administration as one where LGBT is not considered a four-letter word. One individual followed up by asking about religion and gay rights. Johnson did something that many Republicans would consider political suicide. He told the questioner that he doesn't attend church and said, "I don't believe in a God who isn't all inclusive."

He is the most pro-immigration candidate, from what I can see, in either party. He told his supporters, "Immigration is a good thing." He said it was bizarre that the United States "is educating the best and the brightest kids from around the world and then making them go home, instead of letting them start their businesses and create jobs here."

Johnson says that immigration should be encouraged and that immigrants should pass a criminal background check and receive a Social Security number in order to enter the tax system legally. He says the main reason for illegal immigration is that it is almost impossible to immigrate legally. He advocates a grace period, during which all illegal immigrants can submit to a background check and receive their Social Security number. He said a border wall is a waste and won't solve the immigration problem.

As for border violence, Johnson says most of it is related to the prohibition of drugs, thus the direct result of bad policy in the United States. Johnson wants the legalization of marijuana, abolition of the Drug Enforcement Agency and says we should look at drugs as a medical problem, not a legal one; strategy for drugs should be one of "harm reduction." As Johnson sees it, "90% of the problems regarding drugs are prohibition related not use related."

Johnson's views seem to correspond best with the large block of independent voters, but he has to secure the nomination of Republicans. But if he can get past the iron lock that the Religious Right seems to have on the Republican Party, he might be a very tough opponent for any Democrat.

Independent voters are almost as supportive of marriage equality as Democrats. They are almost as concerned about the federal debt as Republicans. Like Democratic voters, independents don't like the war, but like Republican voters, they don't like high taxes and spending. They are fiscally conservative, socially liberal and neither party represents them.

Like the Mugwumps of the late 1800s, these voters ping-pong between the two major parties, voting against the incumbents, but never really supporting the opposition.