Gary Johnson’s curious campaign for president

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By Hal Rhodes

It has now been almost a month and a-half since former Gov. Gary Johnson announced his candidacy for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, yet it’s still unclear why he’s running.
A Gallup poll last week attempted to measure the name recognition among rank and file Republicans of the real or rumored potential candidates for the party’s nomination.
Johnson came in dead last, trailing even a former pizza chain executive, Herman Cain, who recently made it official that he also seeks the GOP nomination.
Admittedly, a month and a-half is not a lot of time for Johnson to blossom into a household name down at Republican grassroots. Still, for him to lag behind a former pizza czar who seemingly materialized from out of nowhere hardly augers well for Johnson.
His campaign has been uphill from the git-go and the hill seems to be getting steeper. Nor does it help that Johnson is routinely ignored by the media, major and minor.   
Ask almost anybody what they have seen or heard about the former governor’s campaign since hitting the campaign trail, and if the reactions are anything like this reporter has gotten, the only thing folks seem to recall is that the legendary country and pop singer Willie Nelson has withdrawn his earlier endorsement of Johnson.
Otherwise, what chatter there is seems almost entirely centered on the former governor’s drive to see marijuana use legalized. Johnson makes no apologies for his views on legalizing marijuana, but reports have it that he is chagrined to be known for that alone.
Yet to the extent this lack of visibility is a problem for Johnson, it is of his making.
In announcing his candidacy in April, the former governor did little more than parrot the boiler-plate GOP mantra about budget deficits, national debt, big government and no new taxes.
Almost nowhere did he outline how a Johnson presidency would differ from the presidencies of the other candidates campaigning to become the next Republican standard bearer.
Which, again, leads folks to wonder why Gary Johnson wants to be president.
Throughout our national experience, candidates have run for president knowing they might never become president but determined, nonetheless, to make a point or to advance a cause.  
One of the most famous such campaign was in 1924, when both the Republican and Democratic parties nominated two decidedly unimaginative conservatives for the presidency.   
Appalled at the dull and duller choices facing them, progressive forces prevailed upon an illustrious Progressive Republican, Wisconsin’s U.S. Sen. Robert LaFollette, to enter the fray.
LaFollette knew he couldn’t win, but he seized the opportunity to raise reform issues and ideas, which would subsequently find favor with American voters and the presidents they would elect.
Conceivably Gary Johnson’s presidential outing could have been undertaken in the same spirit – a campaign with little chance of making him president but calculated to break ground for policies and reform ideas that otherwise are ignored in presidential election years.
Speaking the other day with Doug Turner (aka D.W. Turner) who ran for the 2010 state GOP’s gubernatorial nomination and who, before that, managed Johnson’s 1998 reelection campaign, I asked whether it is possible that the man he helped win a second term might have gotten into the race for president for reasons other than winning the White House.
Turner thought not. “No,” he said, “I don’t think Gary does anything for kicks and chuckles.”
Perhaps not. But he best start mounting a more effective campaign than so far has been the case if he’s in it for the big prize.

Hal Rhodes
© 2011 New Mexico News Services