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This time around, Gary Johnson’s third-party bid makes sense

·Chief National Correspondent
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The idea of Gary Johnson for president is a lot less crazy than it used to be.

Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president, was an intriguing candidate in the 2012 GOP primary who didn’t catch on. A successful two-term governor of New Mexico, he was never really taken seriously, thanks in part to the cable TV networks that refused to let him debate.

His attempt to enter the national conversation from the right — after governing as a Republican and running in the GOP primary — did not work. Democrats never got a close look at him, and Republicans looked at his wide-eyed, goofy demeanor and dismissed him simply as a pot-smoking kooky Libertarian.

But in 2016, the 63-year-old Johnson is a far more colorful candidate than presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and his lighthearted, sneakers-with-a-suit zaniness now appears rather tame in comparison to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s boasts about the size of his genitals and public threats against political opponents.

“All it is, is name-calling between Clinton and Trump. How about an adult in the room talking about issues and the importance of these issues and how this country can move forward?” said Johnson when we sat down Wednesday.

He’s entertaining without being offensive. He’s accomplished but doesn’t have a whiff of corruption. He’s younger than both Clinton, who turns 69 in October, and Trump, who turns 70 next week. Johnson’s social liberalism and economic conservatism are well suited for the current political climate.

All of this partly explains why Johnson is already polling near 10 percent after only recently beginning to campaign in earnest. If he gets to 15 percent or higher in most polls, he’ll be guaranteed a spot in the three presidential debates this fall, at least according to the rules set by the Presidential Commission on Debates.

It seems Johnson and his running mate — former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld — will get a more serious look this year than any Libertarian presidential ticket in history. And that’s when the real test for Johnson will begin, if his policy positions are closely scrutinized and debated.

For the record, Johnson doesn’t smoke marijuana. He eats it. “With that whole edible thing, I have an aversion to smoking of any kind. Health and wellness really is a critical part of my life,” he told me. He said he wouldn’t consume any drugs if elected president.

But Johnson — who will be on the ballot in all 50 states — is approaching the national electorate this year more from the left than the right. He’s appealing to Bernie Sanders supporters on the basis of his pro-pot, pro-gay rights, anti-surveillance views.

“Of all the candidates left, running for president, I side most with Bernie Sanders,” Johnson told Politico’s Glenn Thrush this week.

Going after Sanders supporters makes sense. Many of them are loath to support Clinton, and even Trump made explicit overtures to them this week.

But the resistance to Trump among conservatives equals and probably dwarfs the distaste for Clinton among liberal progressives. Many on the right hate Clinton, are disgusted with the idea that they might have to vote for Trump to stop her, and are desperate for an alternative.

Yet the barriers for social conservatives to support Johnson are just as high as they are for liberal progressives, if not higher.

Johnson will have to convince progressives that cutting government spending by 23 percent, eliminating the personal and corporate income tax, payroll, Medicare and Medicaid taxes, and moving to a 28 percent consumption tax on goods and services — are good ideas.

But social conservatives are resolute on the issue of religious liberty, and Johnson has sided decisively with gay rights when discussing cases over the past few years in which bakers, photographers and others have declined to provide services for gay weddings.

Johnson is clear that social conservatism was one of the things that bothered him most as a Republican governor and presidential candidate. “Being a Libertarian really is just so refreshing because I don’t have to defend the Republican social dogma anymore,” he told me. He even seemed to say he would not oppose the legalization of polygamy when asked pointedly about it on Fox News by Tucker Carlson.

And on abortion, he’s moved further left than he was a few years ago. In 2010, Johnson told the Weekly Standard that abortion “should be a states issue to begin with.

“The criteria for a Supreme Court justice would be that those justices rule on the original intent of the constitution. Given that, it’s my understanding that that justice would overturn Roe v. Wade,” he said then.

This week, Johnson said that legalized abortion is “the law of the land,” even though he still thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

“The law of the land is not Roe v. Wade. The law of the land is Casey v. Planned Parenthood. The law of the land is, is that a woman may have an abortion up to the point of viability of the fetus,” Johnson said. “The Supreme Court has defined ‘the viability of the fetus’ as being able to sustain the life of the fetus outside of the womb even if by artificial means. I have no intention of changing the current law of the land.”

Religious conservatives have expressed befuddlement that Johnson is not making more of an effort to win over a large group of voters who don’t like Trump but see Clinton as radical on abortion and hostile on religious liberty.

“At the very moment when social conservatives would be most open to libertarianism … the libertarian nominees are running against conservatives,” wrote Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner. “Social conservatives are homeless this election.”

Johnson did make a distinction that may appease some whose main concern is being compelled to participate in a religious ceremony that violates the teachings of their faith.

“The cake baker, if you want to use that as an example, is never compelled to decorate the cake,” Johnson said. “Under the First Amendment, the cake baker doesn’t have to decorate the cake. They have to sell the cake, but they don’t have to decorate it because [the] First Amendment would say, ‘I’ll provide you with the materials to decorate your cake. You decorate your cake, but I have to sell you the cake.’”

When I asked Johnson’s campaign about a bill in the California legislature that Christian universities say would impact their religious rights, spokesman Joe Hunter said that “Gov. Johnson’s general view is that attempting to legislate religious liberty — on either side of the equation — is a slippery slope.”

Johnson is a thrill-seeking endurance athlete. He has climbed Mount Everest, finished a number of Iron Man triathlons, and competed in a grueling 100-mile mountain bike race in Colorado several times. If he does not get elected president, he told me he’d like to be in Canada a year from now competing in what’s known as the world’s hardest mountain bike race, the Tour Divide, a 2,700-mile grind through the Rocky Mountains all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, which starts every year the second Friday in June. In 2005, he suffered a horrible accident while paragliding in Hawaii, hitting a tree and plummeting 50 feet to the ground, where he landed on his back and suffered “a burst fracture to his T12 vertebra.”

“I lost an inch and a half in height in that accident,” he told me. During his recovery, Johnson began using medical marijuana.

“I hate prescription painkillers. I hate them. It doesn’t really do away with the pain. It just puts you into another state,” Johnson said. “I had a friend come by with me on the floor, day two, and she said, ‘I can get you some marijuana to deal with this if you want.’ Ding, ding, ding, ‘Please, please.’ It helped me immensely with my recovery from this accident.”

Johnson was the CEO of a medical marijuana company for 18 months until this past January, and he makes a case for legalization of the drug because “marijuana products medicinally directly compete with legal prescription painkillers, antidepressants that kill 100,000 people a year.”

It’s the kind of argument that could gain some traction. At the very least, it’s certain to get people listening in a new way to a candidate that, thanks to an already unpredictable year, suddenly has a door open wider to him than anyone thought was possible just a few months ago.

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