Over the summer, I had the chance to ask Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson about a subject he rarely spoke about in public: how he would address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if elected president.
“Hands off,” he replied. “Israel understands the situation, and they’re the ones that are going to deal with this. And for us to pretend otherwise, I think, is just wrong.”
And if the country continued building settlements, I pressed? Would he exert American pressure?
“I think it’s wrong for us to interject ourselves in that at all,” he answered. “This is Israel, and I have been there. And I have visited. And I’ve seen this, and they’re the ones that understand this better than anyone else.”
It was July 26, and I’d spent the previous two weeks traveling with Johnson — the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico — for a Politico Magazine profile on his unlikely bid for the presidency. At the time, Johnson and running mate Bill Weld — the former Republican governor of Massachusetts — seemed on the verge of a historic breakout, polling just a few points shy of the 15 percent threshold they needed to qualify for the presidential debates. And the growing ranks of voters who stopped Johnson on the street to ask for selfies seemed to attest to his momentum.
But the following months proved rocky, to say the least. In a now infamous television interview, Johnson failed to recognize the name of the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo — an embarrassing moment that would come to define him for many voters. He flubbed again a few weeks later, in another on-screen performance, when he struggled to name a single foreign leader he respected. Johnson ended up watching the debates on television, and as his already-thin odds of a historic victory evaporated, so too did much of his support.
Despite the turn of events, Johnson stands poised to make history on Tuesday, with polls showing him likely to take home more votes than any Libertarian nominee in history and any third-party candidate since Ross Perot in the 1990s. And if he gets 5% of the vote — the current FiveThirtyEight forecast projects him to get 4.6% — he will qualify the Libertarian Party for major-party status, earning it millions of dollars in public funding for the 2020 election. (Outwardly, Johnson’s campaign is still clinging to hope that he could pull off a surprise win in his home state of New Mexico, where he has 22% in a recent poll.)
With the race between Clinton and Trump tightening, moreover, Johnson could very well prove the decisive force on Election Day, like Ralph Nader in 2000. Figuring out which candidate Johnson will hurt more, however, has been difficult.
Politically speaking, after all, Libertarians defy easy right-left categorization. Economically, their free-market views put them in line with the Republican Party, but they also have liberal positions on social issues as well as a non-interventionist foreign-policy platform. But Johnson’s rhetoric — attacking both Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and Clinton’s hawkish streak — has resonated among some progressives, particularly many young supporters of Bernie Sanders.
To get a better sense of where Johnson fell on the American political map, I sat down with him to survey his thoughts on a range of issues — from Obamacare (he’s against it) to affirmative action (also against) to the Iran nuclear deal (against) to gun control (against, too). What follows is a transcript of that conversation (it has been lightly edited for clarity and relevance).
We’ve spoken about Trump. I’ve heard you speak about Hillary, but I’m curious to know what your feelings are insofar as you have them.
Gary Johnson: Well, nothing’s going to change with Hillary. And yes, things are going to change. I mean, here it is, she’s promising, you know, free college now. And everything is about free. Bill [Clinton] was in New Mexico campaigning for her, and he was taking about free electricity on the reservations. And she has been on record saying that. What did she say? Her biggest challenge of her political career is going up against Republicans? So, I’m going to start saying it more and more: If she’s president of the United States, she’s going to hire all partisan Democrats. And if Trump is elected, I think he’s going to hire all partisan Republicans. And the divide is going to get worse.
During your CNN town hall, you were asked the question, “What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Obama?” and it sounds like from what you said today that you really do think he’s a “good guy.”
GJ: I do. I do really think that he’s well-meaning. I have said many times. I really have difficulty regarding anything that he says [negatively]. What he says is really pretty spot-on. It’s just that the actions don’t match up with the words.
In terms of policy?
GJ: In terms of policy. In terms of follow-through. When he ran for president the first time, in 2008, he did say we should balance the federal budget. I mean, he said it all. He said everything. But none of that came to fruition.
How do you compare his performance to Bush’s?
GJ: Well, I think Bush was more in line with what he said — he actually did follow through. I think that Bush was also well-meaning. There’s nothing sinister at all about Bush. I don’t think I would’ve — I would not have — gone into Iraq. I just saw that as a civil war that was never going to end. I would’ve gone into Afghanistan, but I think that mission was accomplished in Afghanistan after seven months and that we could have gone back in if Osama bin Laden reared his head. So, boy the wars, this is George W. I don’t think it was intentional by any means. Certainly, in his heart, I think he did what he thought was right.
But are you one of those people who questioned his qualifications or intelligence?
GJ: No, no, I mean, I’ve come to also recognize that people in the office are flawed. I mean, we hold them up as the smartest people in the world. And they’re not. And I’m in that same group.
What do you think your three biggest flaws are?
GJ: Well, your flaws are also your strengths. So, I do tell the truth. I do say what I’m going to do. So one of the guys in the state legislature in New Mexico said, what do you like about Governor Johnson the most? ‘Well, I like the fact that he really doesn’t negotiate on these things — that he has his ideas and [is] open to input and all that, but if he makes up his mind, he makes up his mind. That’s his strength.’ ‘Well, what’s his weakness?’ ‘His weakness is that he makes up his mind — he doesn’t really negotiate.’ And really, I do believe that doesn’t just apply to me — that applies to everybody. Your strengths and your weaknesses are kind of one and the same.
With Hillary, let me ask you the question.
GJ: [Referring to CNN town hall, in which he called Hillary Clinton a “wonderful public servant”] I wish I had that one to do over with. That’s one of those I wish I had to do over with. And I would say today, I would describe Hillary as “beholden.”
It seems from watching that video that something did pop into your mind initially, and you sort of said, “No, I can’t say that” and went with “wonderful public servant.”
GJ: Well, you know, yeah, she’s been a wonderful public servant. And in that context, I think that she is beholden. It’s like Bill, when he called Trump a “huckster,” boy, that hit the nail on the head. It really hit the nail on the head. “Beholden,” I think, hits it on the head with Hillary. But it took me a while to come to that one.
People say lesser of two evils. My hunch is that you don’t put them in the same category, in terms of the damage they would do to this country.
GJ: Well, Trump, man, that’s some scary stuff, in my opinion. In his address to Republicans, he was not talking about the country that I live in. He’s the epitome of what I think wealth should not be. But Hillary is a little more — I don’t think I would distinguish damage between the two as being lesser with either one. Hillary is going to grow government. Hillary is going to be the most hawkish president that we’ve had since… Johnson? Who?
But when you say “scary stuff” with Trump, what do you mean “scary”?
GJ: The deportation of 11 million undocumented workers. How’s that going to work in New Mexico? 48 percent of the population is Hispanic. So is this going to be a federal force that’s going to go door to door in New Mexico? Really, how’s it going to work?
People you know?
GJ: People I know. And me. Knock on my door. “Oh, you’re the former governor.” But the next door they knock on, statistically, is going to be Hispanic. So what’s that gonna be? Papers? Produce papers? Knowing a lot of people on the Arizona border, when [Arizona Governor] Jan Brewer came out with all this stuff, they were putting signs on the back of their cars, “I’m a US citizen.” And they were carrying their papers. And I’m talking about my Hispanic friends, on the border with Arizona.
But you don’t think one is more dangerous to the country than the other?
GJ: I don’t. [Laughs]. Which one gets us to the bottom quicker? Neither one wants to take on entitlements, and that’s a huge, huge issue. [With] Hillary, taxes are going to go up. Trump, we’re talking about isolationist. Tonight, you heard me say: Wall Street Journal article two days ago: Wharton School of Business, three scenarios: Increase immigration by 50%, increase high-skilled immigration — actually try and cut back — make immigration more restrictive. Well, of the three, one had a negative impact on the economy, one had a very small positive impact, and one had a big positive impact. And that was Trump’s alma mater, too — that was what was also significant about that.
Do you feel like you’re playing with the strings of history, that maybe you’ll hurt one candidate more than the other? And the interesting thing about you is it’s not very clear who you would hurt more.
GJ: I absolutely believe that it’s fifty-fifty from both sides and that it will be an equal swath from the independent side.
But you never ask yourself the question: “OK, say I don’t win? Might I tip the election to one or the other?” That never crosses your mind?
GJ: Nope, nope. No, I don’t because I don’t believe it to be the case. And historically, you know, Perot, it was always said that Perot tipped the election to Clinton. Actually, he didn’t. And when I ran in New Mexico the first time, there was a Green Party candidate that took 10% of the vote. And the Green Party candidate took equally from both sides —all of our polling showed that. Polling of any third party always is a fifty-fifty deal. Now, in the case of the Green Party, I don’t know about that one. To me, that is definitely coming off of Hillary.
Let’s do a lightning round on issues. Climate change: You seem to believe in science behind climate change but seem to hope that it can be solved by the private sector.
GJ: Well, of late, just of late, something that I have to do — and I will do — is understand cap-and-trade, understand carbon tax, and how it can actually be revenue-neutral. Right now, I don’t understand it, but it can’t be that complex. And I’ve gotten some things sent to me that I asked people to send me. I just haven’t had the time to read it.
But you’re open to that idea — a revenue-neutral carbon tax?
GJ: Yeah, yeah.
So you might actually be to the left of Hillary on a carbon tax?
GJ: I might be. I might be. What I’ve said is that I don’t want whatever we do regarding climate change to result in a loss of US jobs.
And why would you consider a carbon tax?
GJ: People that I really believe in, that I think are really smart on this topic, are saying “oh, yeah, it’s very viable. It’s fair, it’s not a penalty,” so smart people that I respect have said that. And more and more of them. Maybe I just finally raised my antennae to the point that I should have been hearing that long ago, but I am now. [NOTE: Johnson has since reversed himself on a carbon tax, saying he’s concluded it can’t work.]
What about space issues? We discussed Mars — you would leave that to the private sector or would you do sort of a moonshot, “let’s build that Mars colony”?
GJ: Well, right now, all the innovation appears to be occurring on the private side. And in the context of going to Mars, if that can be contained within a 20% reduction in funding to NASA, hey, more power to them. But if this is something we’re going to have to increase their spending by 100% to accomplish, not now. Not now. I think we have time. At some point, the sun is going to encompass the earth, so we do need to populate other planets. Whether or not we do that in the next 10 years, eight years, back to budgetary constraints, probably won’t happen.
Nuclear weapons: Pro? Or do you believe in a world without nuclear weapons?
GJ: Well, Bill Weld said it best. And this is back to our partnership too — that I think you’re going to get two heads for the price of one, and he’s really smart, and he’s been serving on various international panels. A reduction of nuclear weapons, I think, would be part of our goal.
But global zero? Obama has said we want to work toward a world without nuclear weapons.
GJ: Well, I don’t think that can be accomplished in eight years. I don’t think that that’s a realistic goal. Could you get the ball rolling in that direction? I’d like to be part of rolling the ball in that direction.
Guns. How do you feel about an assault-weapon ban?
GJ: Well, an assault-weapon ban, and this is an opportunity to educate. There are no automatic weapons allowed. There’s no weapon made right now that you pull the trigger and 40 rounds go off. You have to pull the trigger each and every time. So, assault weapon is a semi-automatic rifle. Well, they label an assault rifle the same as a car that might not be a sports car — they label it a sports car. So there are 30 million semi-automatic rifles. And if you ban automatic weapons — I’m not going to do that; it’s the Second Amendment of the Constitution — but let’s just take the argument, “let’s ban semi-automatic rifles.” Half the people that own semi-automatic rifles are not going to hand them in. That’s my guess. And there’s going to be a criminal penalty that’s going to go along with that. It’s not possible. It’s just not possible to ban semi-automatic rifles.
What about universal background checks?
GJ: I’m not looking to diminish what’s on the books. I’m not looking to roll that back. And moving forward, I’m open to a discussion on keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Or how do you keep guns out of the hands of potential terrorists? I just haven’t heard any arguments that ultimately might not prevent me from being able to buy a weapon if I want it. Republicans always say, “needing the gun to actually protect themselves.” I think, just, OK, I’m the abusive spouse and I’m making threats that I’m going to come and kill my ex-wife, and my ex-wife says, “oh man, I gotta get a gun.” Well, does she really get a gun so that she can shoot the guy? Or does she get a gun so that he knows that she has a gun? And I think that’s a real deterrent, so I hate it when Republicans say that the woman is buying the gun so she can shoot her spouse when really the reality is she’s buying a gun as a deterrent. Nuclear weapons. And the harder it is to buy that weapon, if she’s in a situation where all the ex-spouse has to do is know she has a weapon and she can’t buy one, that would be a horrible situation. Given that we do have the Second Amendment.
How about affirmative action? Where do you stand on that?
GJ: Oh, I would sure abolish affirmative action if it passed the legislature. But that’s another one of those things that, you know, I don’t think I would be leading with my chin on that one.
Why abolish it?
GJ: I just really think that it’s outlived its usefulness, that it’s more of a tool for those who know how to bend it.
Obamacare, would you do away with it or do you think there’s a case for keeping parts of it?
GJ: Well, clearly they can’t do away with it because the Republican Congress can’t. Would I do away with it? I think that a free-market approach to health care — I think there are approaches to health care that would genuinely make it cost less money and avail all of us of better health care. Now, what are the particulars regarding that? Well, that’s got to be reducing regulations surrounding the health care industry. Certainly, there are liabilities that are already there, but when Republicans talk about being able to buy insurance across state lines as the way to reform health care, to me, doesn’t accomplish anything.
But the concept of universal health care, is that something you agree with?
GJ: No, it’s not. Universal health care. I equate it to grocery insurance. We don’t have grocery insurance, but why don’t we? Go into the grocery store, there’s no pricing on any of the shelves. I’m going to buy ground beef? Hell no, I’m going to buy filets. What do they cost? Well, does it matter? Grocery insurance. It’s ludicrous to think that you could buy insurance to pay for groceries. Isn’t it ludicrous that we have health insurance for ongoing medical need?
So, in other words, fee-for-service?
GJ: Pay as you go, and it would cost a fifth of what it costs now.
Let’s do some very quick foreign-policy clarifications. Israel and the Palestinians. Hands off or…
GJ: Hands off. Israel understands the situation, and they’re the ones that are going to deal with this. And for us to pretend otherwise, I think, is just wrong.
So you would never put yourself forward as a mediator of a peace settlement?
GJ: Well, by mediator, if I’m asked to facilitate, sure. But initiate? I think that’s a lot of political posturing.
What if Israel builds settlements? Would you put pressure on them not to do that?
GJ: I think it’s wrong for us to interject ourselves in that at all. This is Israel, and I have been there. And I have visited. And I’ve seen this, and they’re the ones that understand this better than anyone else.
So you consider yourself pro-Israel.
Taiwan. Would you go to war to protect Taiwan if China invaded?
GJ: You know, that’s a big issue out there, and the reality of the issue is that it’s going to evolve to the point that China is going to. Do we want to go to war over Taiwan? Taiwan itself is going to have to come up with its own military, and I think that’s one of the really delicate issues out there. Really, genuinely delicate issue: Do we want to go to war over Taiwan? Because ultimately, that’s going to be an issue.
But it’s US policy right now to protect Taiwan.
GJ: Yes, so I’m going to honor all treaty obligations.
But you would rethink it.
GJ: There’s one of them. I don’t know if “rethink” is the right term, but we need to ask ourselves the question: We’re going to go to nuclear war over Ukraine that used to be part of the Soviet Union? I hope not.
But Ukraine isn’t part of NATO. The Baltic states are. So you said in one breath you will honor all obligations but also, “do we want to do this?” So which is it?
GJ: Honor all obligations and then embark on this notion of actually making the world a safer place. So not having these intertwined alliances that have us bound to go to war. Making the world less safe. I mean, we don’t have to be Russia’s ally, but we don’t have to stick it in their face either.
ISIS. You would continue—
GJ: Continue [the] current path. We’re at war, but people need to understand that ISIS’s days are numbered. Sands through the hourglass, that’s ISIS right now.
Korea. You would pull out all troops from Korea?
GJ: Well, that could be a real bargaining chip to get China to deal with North Korea and the nukes.
So, quid pro quo?
GJ: Quid pro quo. Let’s address the biggest threat in the world, which is North Korea and their nukes. And if you can address this, maybe we can get out of South Korea. And you heard me say: “Imagine 40,000 Chinese troops in Central America.” We’d be going crazy.
Were you for or against the Iran deal?
GJ: I was pro, and then I was con. I was pro for all the reasons they said that it was good. And then naively, I recognized that they were the largest funder of terrorism and that by releasing $160 billion — and by Kerry’s own admission, that “yes,” I’m paraphrasing, he says, “Yes, I’m afraid that some of this money will get used for terrorism.” Well, what are we doing? Well, then, OK, but we do it, and so we need to honor that agreement. But it’s, from my understanding, it is something that we can monitor. And that there are many that are optimistic that this can and actually will work, so I’m going to be in that camp now.
But sort of mixed feelings on the deal?
GJ: Skeptical about the deal. So I’ll be on the monitoring side of this.
If you became president, would you use military force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — if it looked like they were breaking out?
GJ: Well, never say never to anything. But something that I said when it came to Iraq is that it was said that they had weapons of mass destruction. Well, we have the surveillance capability to see what somebody’s having for lunch if we train the satellites on that situation. So what I said when it came to Iraq is that, if they roll out weapons of mass destruction, we’re going to see them do that. And we can address it at that time militarily if in fact they do that. I think the same situation would exist in Iran.
What do you make of the Trump and Sanders insurgencies? I mean, both were big government, and it seems to me that, if you do really well, it will not be because of your libertarianism but because of your personality and the fact that you’re an independent.
GJ: So, my theory is — I told you about the ISideWith.com quiz [in which he lined up 73% with Bernie Sanders]. Well, do Bernie Sanders supporters really think that government can achieve income equality? I think they really don’t think that. I think that the 73% I agree with Bernie on is really the draw. What they have heard is that crony capitalism is alive and well — I totally agree. It’s not income equality that deals with that. It’s opportunity equality that deals with that. That’s what I’m going to pose to Bernie voters, that if government can provide you opportunity equality, isn’t that all that government can really do? But it is something that can be accomplished.
Are you pro-Dodd-Frank, the Wall Street legislation?
GJ: No, I would not be. Just that it’s added so much regulation. Greenspan, he said, “I didn’t believe that the market, that Wall Street, that the financial institutions were capable of such poor judgment.” But I think they should have been rewarded [for] their poor judgment by being allowed to have gone bankrupt. That was the problem in that equation. And that wouldn’t have been depositors losing their money. That would have been the institutions going bankrupt, shareholders going bankrupt. But that’s the risk you take when you buy shares of stock.
Like you? [Johnson lost millions of dollars in the Enron collapse].
GJ: Yes, I was very, very negatively impacted by that financial crisis.
I do have to ask again about Clinton and Trump. It seems from the way you talk about them that you view Trump as a unique threat. You clearly don’t like Hillary and disagree with her policies. But if Trump were to become president and it was as a result of Gary Johnson siphoning away Bernie voters, that wouldn’t give you pause?
GJ: No. If Trump’s going to win, he’s going to win. It’s not going to be because of me.