Debra J. Saunders: Johnson is a refreshing alternative

Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson sees a path to the White House. The former Republican governor of New Mexico can boast a running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who also is the former Republican governor of a blue state. When they were Republicans, they won in blue states not just once but also when they ran for re-election. They’ve never been social-issue conservatives.

Both support efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton their parties’ presumptive nominees – Johnson branded Clinton and Trump the “two most polarizing figures” to ever run for the White Housethe Libertarian ticket has a shot in November.

Before he spoke at the Lincoln Initiative’s Reboot Conference on Thursday, I sat down with Johnson and asked him what the chances are that he could win. “They exist,” he answered, and that is a game change. Johnson was the Libertarian nominee in 2012 and garnered 1.2 million votes, or just under 1 percent of the vote. His name did not appear on any national polls. In 2016, that has changed. Johnson polled with 10 percent support in two recent national polls included in the RealClearPolitics polling average, which computes his support at 7.9 percent.

Third-party candidates need to exhibit 15 percent or more support in five national polls to win a seat at the national presidential debates. Johnson thinks his ticket will exceed that threshold. If the American people have a chance to hear what Johnson and Weld have to say, their smaller-government approach could resonate with middle-of-the-road voters.

Most Republican candidates give lip service to fiscal restraint, without offering specifics about which spending they would cut. When I interviewed him in 2011, Johnson boasted about his record number of vetoes and asserted that he could have cut “a third of state government and no one would have noticed the difference.” If he could wave a magic wand, Johnson told me Thursday, he “would abolish the Department of Education.” He also would abolish the Department of Housing and Urban Development because local governments should choose what works for them. But he doesn’t have a magic wand, so if elected, he’d have to work with the government as it exists. He said he will propose a 20 percent cut in spending. If Congress were to give him legislation that would cut spending less than he asked, well, anything under zero percent growth presents a drastic improvement over past practices.

Clinton is vulnerable, Johnson believes, because with her, “government’s the solution to everything. Everything’s free, so taxes are going to go up.” The former governor of a border state, Johnson has been appalled at Trump’s characterization of undocumented immigrants as rapists and other types of criminals.

Some Republicans will support Clinton because they prefer her hawkish foreign policy approach to Johnson’s less martial stands. Johnson wants to break with the status quo. He supports letting U.S. troops finish their mission to destroy the Islamic State group. (“ISIS has attacked us,” he explained.) But Johnson wants to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. If we don’t pull out troops now, Johnson said, Washington will leave troops in Afghanistan for decades. I have my own fear – a destabilized region that will breed havoc around the world.

It’s an honest disagreement, which is more than I can say about so much of 2016 politics. Somehow both parties have nominated candidates who don’t really pass the smell test. Shame on Democrats for nominating a candidate likely to invite dozens of ethics investigations. Shame on Republican voters for picking the one candidate who could hand the White House to Clinton. Voters who are hungry for a positive alternative should pay attention. You can listen to Gary Johnson for a whole hour and not feel dirty afterward.

Debra J. Saunders is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.