With Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels choosing not to run, there are now two libertarian-leaning presidential candidates in the GOP field for 2012: Ron Paul and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Which is a better standard-bearer for libertarianism? I think it’s Johnson by a wide margin. He’s both more libertarian than Paul on the issues and likely to be a more effective candidate.
I. The Issues.
Turning to the issues first, the difference between the two is strikingly large. As I explained back when Paul ran in 2008, he has very nonlibertarian positions on free trade, school choice, and especially immigration. He also believes that Kelo v. City of New London was correctly decided because he thinks the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states. The latter is theoretically compatible with being a libertarian; one can believe that the Constitution should protect us against various forms of oppression by state governments, but simply fails to do so. But Paul’s position is at odds with most modern research on the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, and with the views of virtually all libertarian constitutional law scholars. It also bodes ill for the nature of his judicial appointments in the unlikely event that he actually wins the presidency.
On all of these issues, Johnson is clearly superior to Paul from a libertarian point of view. He supports school choice and free trade agreements, he’s as pro-immigration as any successful politician can be, and he believes that the Bill of Rights constrains the states as well as the federal government. On the other hand, I can’t think of a single issue where Paul is more libertarian than Johnson, though I’m open to correction by people who know more about their records than I do.
I don’t agree with Johnson on everything. For example, I’m significantly more hawkish than he is on foreign policy. But as a political standard-bearer for libertarianism, Johnson is about as good on the issues as any remotely mainstream politician is likely to be at this point in time.
II. Political Viability.
Johnson is also probably more politically effective than Paul. That’s because he doesn’t carry any of the negative baggage that Paul does. Unlike Paul, Johnson never published a newsletter with racist and anti-Semitic content, or signed on to a political strategy of appealing to white racial resentment against minorities, as Paul did in the early 1990s. As I said during the 2008 campaign, I don’t believe that Paul is a racist. But his record of insensitivity on racial issues dogged him in 2008, and is likely to resurface in 2012 if his candidacy becomes at all successful. Paul also has a record of endorsing weird right-wing conspiracy theories, such as the mythical “North American Union.” This too was seized on by the media in 2008, and could be a problem again. If Paul becomes the public face of libertarianism in 2012, there is a risk that the movement as a whole could be tainted by association with these dubious elements of his record. By contrast, Johnson has no comparable problems, as far as I know.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Johnson, whom I saw speak at the Students for Liberty conference, is much more articulate and charismatic than Paul, who isn’t especially impressive in either department. I would not say that Johnson is a truly great public speaker. But he’s pretty good, which is more than can be said for Paul.
The big advantages that Paul has over Johnson are that he has more money and greater name recognition. But if libertarian activists, donors, and intellectuals become aware of the ways in which Johnson is the superior candidate, they might rally around him and possibly give his campaign the boost it needs to take off and surpass Paul.
Realistically, neither Johnson nor Paul has a strong chance of actually winning the GOP nomination. But if his campaign gets off the ground, Johnson will have better odds than Paul does because he’s more appealing to voters and the media, and less hated by the GOP establishment. More importantly, he’s certainly a far superior libertarian protest candidate and public face for the movement. The chance that either candidate can win the presidency in 2012 is remote. But Johnson is the one more likely to serve as an effective spokesman for libertarianism, adding new supporters without unnecessarily alienating people.
Many times in politics, we face a choice between a candidate with better political skills and one who is better on the issues. Johnson trumps Paul on both counts.