Gary Johnson, former Republican governor of New Mexico and likely 2012 presidential candidate, is serious when he says he wants to end deficit spending. He's so serious that he advocates cutting federal spending by 43 percent.
"I've spent my entire life watching the government spend more than it takes in," Johnson, a 58-year-old triathlete, told me during an interview last week. Johnson was in town speaking for his Our America initiative -- a nonprofit organization that, under the tax code, allows him to look as if he's running for president as long as he won't admit it.
Johnson's not talking about cutting around the edges, or just getting rid of the handy trilogy of "waste, fraud and abuse." He proposes slashing Uncle Sam's most popular programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the defense budget. He has talked about raising the retirement age to 70 or 72. He wants to end federal health care mandates and replace Medicaid with block grants to states.
Does he want to repeal Obamacare?
Sure, but first he suggests Congress repeal the Bush Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. "I was embarrassed," he noted, at the Bush plan, because it added to the federal deficit. "I've witnessed both parties and their ability to spend."
The Our America initiative seeks to "enlighten" the public on "civil liberties, free enterprise, limited government, and traditional American values."
By limited government, Johnson doesn't mean what your average GOP politician means -- trimming a little fat. The Libertarian-leaning Johnson wants to legalize marijuana and curb excesses in the war on drugs.
As Johnson told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Joe Garofoli last year, America "becomes a much better place overnight when law enforcement can concentrate on real harm" -- physical violence or property crimes -- "as opposed to what I would call victimless crime."
Johnson opposed the war in Iraq from the get-go. He wants U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and opposes spending U.S. tax dollars on nation-building abroad. There's a whiff of isolationism in this Republican's view -- but some Democrats could go for it.
Johnson's commitment to limited government also applies to immigration. He proposes making it "as easy as possible" for foreign nationals to get work visas.
Before he was termed out as governor, Johnson was proud of his record number of vetoes. He attributes his 1998 re-election in a heavily Democratic state to New Mexico voters' appreciation of his "good stewardship of tax dollars." In what must be music to some tea party movement followers' ears, Johnson told me that he believes he could have cut "a third of state government and no one would have noticed the difference."
Johnson sees himself as the Republican best positioned to put a "voice to the national outrage over being bankrupt" -- and the candidate best positioned to deliver on tea party demands for a balanced budget. Or, as he put it, he is "serving up a plateful of truth."
I believe there's a truth, but I told him I am uncomfortable when anyone proclaims himself a "truth" teller. It's the conundrum of modern American politics. The more certain and consistent the politician's message, the harder it is to believe he's for real.