Here are a couple of more optimistic takes on a possible Gary Johnson presidential candidacy: Daniel Larison says he might “have a salutary effect on the primary contest,” Jack Ross argues Johnson could become the anti-Palin candidate and actually win.
Larison’s point may well be true. Ron Paul was able to gain exposure for his views on foreign policy, civil liberties, and the Federal Reserve through the Republican primary debates even if he didn’t seem at the time to be gaining many converts among the GOP faithful. Gary Johnson ought to be able to do the same. But a big part of the argument for Johnson is that he can move the ball further than Paul, which the Weekly Standard interview does a great deal to undermine.
First, he is going to have even less credibility than Paul among most conservatives. One of the things that helped Rand Paul in the Kentucky Republican primary is that he did not conform to the libertarian caricature being drawn by his establishment opponents. Johnson already seems to be reinforcing that caricature. Second, he seems to be winging it on important parts of his message that the Pauls had clearly thought through. Maybe this will make him seem more reasonable and less ideologically rigid than Ron Paul. But casually throwing out figures about cutting the defense budget in half and then talking about humanitarian interventions abroad could just muddle his arguments.
Ross’ take, meanwhile, requires me to believe that Ron Paul could have been more successful in the Republican primaries if he was pro-choice, in favor of open borders, and smoked pot. Nothing I know about the Republican primary electorate convinces me of that, even if you promoted Paul to governor of a state and had Sarah Palin as the only other Republican in the race. That seems to me to be a fight Palin could win easily.
As for the abortion issue, it’s true that Johnson is a pro-choice Republican who could run as operationally pro-life. But most of the conservatives who would be inclined to back him rejected this argument when it came from Rudy Giuliani in 2007-08. It will be hard to walk that back simply because Johnson’s foreign policy is more to our liking. Though Johnson does have the advantages of having an actual record of signing pro-life bills as governor and he has gone a step further than Giulaini by supporting the reversal of Roe v Wade. If Johnson comes out for jurisdiction-stripping, which would make him more operationally pro-life than most of his pro-life opponents, maybe he’d be on to something.