Paul vs. Johnson, or, We actually have TWO palatable options?!

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 3.46 pm

Q. As a libertarian with limited time and funds, who should I throw my support behind in the GOP presidential primary:  Ron Paul or Gary Johnson, and why? — Wes, the Humble Libertarian.

A. In February of last year you asked me who I’d like to see as the GOP nominee in 2012, as well as my opinion about Gary Johnson.  Then I wrote that while I saw good potential in both Johnson and the then-unelected Rand Paul (not to mention Ron Paul, of course), I’d rather save the best for 2016.  Since then I’ve written that I’m not too thrilled with the idea of Ron Paul running again.

I still stand by all of those statements.  As with Ron Paul, I (and I’m sure you, Wes) concur with Johnson on the vast majority of issues.  Sure, there are a few disagreements here and there, but I would be happy to see either man in the White House — and should either by some (miraculous) means gain the Republican nomination, I’d certainly support him.

But all that said,while I have a choice, I’ll stick with Ron Paul, especially if we’re speaking in terms of actual electoral success (which I still find unlikely) as opposed to an educational campaign.  Here are my three big reasons why:

1. The Republican Party

Lest we forget, this is not yet a race for the support of the American public at large.  This is a race for the Republican nomination, and in this field, I’d contend, Ron Paul is better suited for success than Gary Johnson.

You see, despite the fact that this stance is often the source of incredibly hypocrisy and hilarity (see Gingrich, Newt and Giuliani, Rudy), the GOP considers itself the party of family values.  In terms of candidates, this is typically shorthand for a faithful, heterosexual marriage coupled with opposition to the legalization of gay marriage, opposition to or at least strong personal distaste for drugs, and a firm prolife position.

Let’s compare Ron Paul and Gary Johnson on these matters:

Marriage: Ron Paul has been married for over 50 years; Johnson divorced his wife in 2005 only to have her die suddenly about a year later.  It’s not a John Edwards-level marriage failure, but it’s not great and it will inevitably come out.  In an interesting aside, only five sitting presidents have ever been unmarried, and none were divorced.

On the policy front, Ron Paul’s position on gay marriage is that it should be at minimum left to the states, but ideally made a completely private matter of voluntary association.  This idea may be too nuanced for a presidential race, but its federalism and semi-religious overtones will certainly play better with the Republican base than Johnson’s simple statement of support for gay marriage.

Drugs: “Much of the attention that Johnson has received,” the New Mexico Independent notes, “has come from his position on legalizing marijuana in the United States.”

Unfortunately, this is all too accurate.  As Johnson himself put it in Playboy, it “wouldn’t bother [him] a bit” if his legacy turns out to be “the governor who wanted to legalize drugs.”  Of course, legalization isn’t his only goal — he also wants to tax and regulate marijuana, a rather un-libertarian stance.  It’s one of just four issues currently on Johnson’s campaign site.  Meanwhile, he’s admitted to smoking pot since being governor.  Yes, it was for medicinal purposes, but that’s the sort of detail which tends to get lost in the spin room shuffle.

Ron Paul’s position on drugs is arguably the more libertarian, but he’s stated repeatedly that he’s not only never smoked but also never even seen marijuana.  It is an obviously ridiculous charge that Ron Paul’s libertarianism on the Drug War extends to libertinism.  Not so with Johnson, for whom I have no doubt the GOP establishment will scrape the very bottom of the barrel for specious attacks as they did with Ron Paul in 2008.

Abortion: Ron Paul, as we all no doubt know, has delivered thousands of babies and is staunchly prolife.  Though he opposes government-funded and partial birth abortions, Johnson is prochoice.  As evidenced by the flip-flopping by the likes of Mitt Romney, lip service to the prolife position is the minimum necessary for success in the Republican primaries.

2.  Name Recognition

It’s rare to meet someone with a modicum of political engagement who hasn’t at least heard of Ron Paul these days.  His grassroots base and organization is substantial and growing fast.  Gary Johnson remains relatively unknown and unsupported.  Heck, the Google results for his name rank his Wikipedia article above his campaign website.  He’s roughly in the same place Ron Paul was in 2007 (compare this 2007 picture, for instance, where Ron Paul’s drawing a college crowd of about 30 people to the crowd he got at Miss State this month).

Johnson simply isn’t as famous as Paul, and I can’t help but imagine that he’ll have an even more difficult time getting equal press coverage than Ron Paul did a few years ago:  Not only is he an anti-establishment candidate who will likely be treated as an also-ran from the start, but he doesn’t even have the novelty factor Ron Paul had on his side.

3. Focus

In 2008, it wasn’t uncommon for Ron Paul to get questions like “Why are you running?” or “Why are you a Republican?” or “Why are your ideas so weird compared to all the other GOP candidates?”  Now it seems like he’s on one media blitz after another, just recently visiting The View, Hannity, and The Colbert Report all in one day.  He’s a fixture on the news, where his economic pronouncements are treated like gold (pun intended) since his successful prediction of the financial crises.

In fact, it’s Ron Paul’s incessant focus on economic issues — even cleverly tying in his inexpensive, noninterventionist foreign policy and small-government domestic positions — which makes up my third reason for support of him over Gary Johnson.  The thought of Ron Paul brings up the Fed, cutting spending, lowering taxes, and generally limiting government at home and abroad.  The thought of Johnson brings up legalizing drugs.

It’s illustrative, I think, to look at the differences between each man’s appearance on Colbert:

Ron Paul covers lots of issues, sticking to his liberty, financial crisis, and limited government points.  Gary Johnson jumps right in with the first substantive thing out of his mouth being about legalizing drugs — without Colbert even mentioning the topic.

Do I agree with Johnson that drugs should be legal?  Yes, without question.  But it’s still bad campaigning to make that your main issue, especially when everyone else in the country is far more interested in the state of the economy.

In short, most of my objections to supporting Gary Johnson are to be blamed on our media, electoral system, and the Republican Party rather than Johnson himself (his record in office was impressive, to be sure!).  Though Justin Raimondo’s recent article on Johnson’s foreign policy — which is a huge issue for me personally — gives me pause, I suspect that were Ron Paul not likely running for president, I would research Johnson and find him an acceptable candidate.  But with Ron Paul in the game, there is — for my support, at least — no contest.

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Post Script: This doesn’t really fit well anywhere above, but it has occurred to me that, if he doesn’t subtract a significant amount of primary votes, Johnson’s presence in the race could actually benefit Ron Paul.  His focus on drugs could tend to cast Paul in a favorable light — i.e. “Ron Paul’s a crazy old libertarian, but he’s our crazy old libertarian — and he’s good on the economy, remember?  All Johnson talks about is drugs.”  If Johnson becomes the “fringe” and other candidates continue to flounder and flip-flop, Ron Paul may begin to look downright attractive to the Republican Party.

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