Yesterday, I met with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson at a gluten-free pizzeria just outside the secure zone for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Johnson, who served two terms as a Republican, is now the Libertarian Party's nominee for president, and so he doesn't have credentials to enter the convention grounds.
Johnson’s candidacy hasn’t caught fire. Johnson started running for president as a Republican but quit the party after getting little traction and failing to gain entry to most debates. As the Libertarian nominee, he's often excluded from polling, but a Rasmussen poll last week had him at 1 percent.
Like most Libertarians, Johnson projects confidence that, if only his views were heard, he would catch on with the voters. Yet no Libertarian nominee for president has ever gotten more than 1.06 percent of the vote. When you delve into Johnson’s positions, you can start to understand why.
Libertarians correctly identify the existence of a “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” block of the population whose needs aren’t met by the Republicans and Democrats. But then they stake out positions that are well to the right of the Republicans on fiscal policy and somewhat to the left of Democrats on social policy. Libertarians might land in the correct ideological "sector" for these voters, but their extremism makes them unpalatable.
For example, Johnson calls for balancing the budget not years down the road but in 2013, by cutting $1.4 trillion in spending. Asked how to do this, he doesn’t hedge about waste, fraud and abuse. Instead he says frankly, “You have to start the discussion with Medicaid, Medicare and military spending.”
Johnson wants to cut military spending by 30 percent and Medicare by 43 percent. He's hopeful that some of these savings could come from making the programs more efficient. But he admits that much of the savings would come from a real reduction in benefits. Johnson contends there is no alternative to sharp cuts on Medicare benefits, unless we expect “Santa Claus” to foot the bill.
This is far from a consensus matter. While Johnson warns of impending “monetary collapse” if America does not immediately balance its budget, the bond markets show no sign of panic. Most Americans correctly perceive that fiscal policy changes can be much more gradual and less draconian than Johnson proposes. And cuts to Medicare and (especially) Medicaid are among the least popular options to fix the federal budget.
Johnson’s platform is radical all-around. He would abolish corporate and individual income taxes in favor of the Fair Tax. He would have allowed large banks to fail in 2008. He says the housing crisis has been prolonged because home prices did not fall far enough and there were not enough foreclosures.
This agenda goes far beyond “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” and it’s no surprise it’s not selling. But where a bias toward liberty isn’t combined with extremism, it can win. Bill Weld combined fiscal conservatism and social liberalism to become a wildly popular governor in Massachusetts. In Europe, “liberal” parties advocate for social liberalism and economic deregulation within the mixed-economy consensus, and often form governments.
Perhaps the best example of what Johnson could be comes from what he was as governor of New Mexico. While Johnson wants to cut the federal budget by more than a third, as governor, he presided over average annual spending increases of 5 percent. Johnson touts this as sensible restraint, but it did not represent a sea change in the way the state government did business. His presidential agenda shows a sharp lurch to the right on economic policy.
Johnson won two solid victories in his races for governor; in 1998, he took 55 percent of the vote. With a similar agenda at the national level, a Libertarian candidate ought to be able to poll higher than 1 percent. But it would require the Libertarian Party to give up on being more extreme than Republicans and Democrats.
Note: A previous version of this post said that no Libertarian presidential ticket had gotten more than 0.5 percent percent of the vote. In 1980, Libertarian candidate Ed Clark received 1.06 percent.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.