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February 1, 2012Posted in Blog, News

The Libertarian presidential candidate charms a gathering of civil libertarians.

Orlando, Fla.—On January 29 the Miami Herald ran a full-page ad excoriating Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney for their “abysmal” constitutional records. The ad wasn’t paid for by Ron Paul or his supporters, but by the American Civil Liberties Union, which invited the GOP field to its annual staff convention in Orlando to “face the nation’s largest gathering of real experts on the Constitution and explain yourselves.” Neither Gingrich nor Romney showed up.

Gary Johnson chuckled when a member of the ACLU’s excutive board
showed him the ad on Sunday. Had the last six months gone
differently—had Johnson been included in more televised debates,
had a media gaggle tracked and reported his every move as he went
door to door in New Hampshire—he would likely be campaigning as a
GOP candidate in Florida this week, and perhaps not speaking to a
small room of ACLU staffers.

Alas, the avalanche of earned media he
anticipated for biking several hundred miles across the Live Free
Or Die State never materialized, so Johnson dropped out of the GOP
and joined the Libertarian Party, where he is, for the first time
since his days as a gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico, a
frontrunner. “I’m polling at 73 percent among libertarians,”
Johnson told me before his speech. “I’ve never known what that’s

After five minutes of small talk in a makeshift green room at
the Doubletree Inn, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero
introduced Johnson to a crowd of 100 or so ACLU staffers as the
most conservative former governor running for president and the top
scorer on the group’s scorecard. I expected Johnson to talk civil liberties
right out of the gate, much the way GOP frontrunners Gingrich and
Romney have tailored their speeches throughout Florida based on the
demographics of a given crowd. But instead of leading with the drug
war, gay marriage, or indefinite detention, Johnson started his
speech the same way he starts most of his speeches: by describing
his commitment to cutting federal spending by 43 percent.

As a result, the ACLU audience barely made a peep for the first
12 minutes of Johnson’s speech, though one person gesticulated
approval, OWS-style, when Johnson said he’d cut the military’s
budget and end Obama’s interventionism. It wasn’t until he got
started on legalizing marijuana that the crowd (figuratively) lit
up. A steady stream of applause followed Johnson’s declarations
after that.

“I support gay marriage equality. I support repealing the
PATRIOT Act. I would have vetoed the Department of Homeland
Security, because I think it’s redundant. I would’ve never
established the department of—the TSA agency. I think we should end
the practices of torture. Period. I can understand the complexities
in the following, but I think we should end the practices of
detainment without being charged. There is nothing I want to see
the government come in and fix with the Internet.”

Johnson also made a point throughout the evening of highlighting
the differences between himself and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who
sought and received Johnson’s endorsement in 2008.

“I don’t think that Ron Paul is going to win the Republican
nomination. For the most part, we are talking about the same
message, but we do have differences. And when he drops out, or
finds an end to the Republican primary, I don’t see this agenda
moving forward,” Johnson said.

“And I think it’s important to point out differences between
myself and Ron Paul. I don’t support building a fence across the
border, I do support gay marriage equality, I do believe in a
strong national defense. I do believe in our alliance with Israel,
for example. And I think military alliances are key to reducing
military spending by 43 percent and still provide for a strong
national defense. And I believe in a woman’s right to choose.”

The crowd went nuts over that last one.

Johnson closed his remarks with something I’d never seen him do
before: a bit of audience-specific pandering.

“I want to thank you for all that you do. For your activism. As
I’ve said, ever since I’ve been governor, ‘The ACLU: You don’t like
what they have to say or you like what they have to say, they’re
always right.’”

When the laughter died down, Johnson opened the floor for
questions the way he has at so many other events. “”Now we’ll start
off with how unright I am, with any questions, any comments, and
any insults you might have.”

An ACLU staffer from New Mexico asked Johnson why, as governor,
he refused to support a bill ending capital punishment. Johnson
explained, as he has several times before, that the enthusiasm he
had for capital punishment during his first term as governor was
all but obliterated when he read up on the case of four members of
the Vagos motorcycle gang who were wrongly convicted of murdering
William Velten in 1974, and sentenced to death. Nearly two years
after the gang members had been on death row, the real killer (a
DEA informant) confessed to Velten’s murder. Johnson, who wanted to
limit capital punishment appeals to exactly two years, told the
questioner that it occurred to him that his own policy, had it been
in place in the 1970s, would have led to the execution of innocent
people, and that capital punishment is simply “bad public

At the end of the Q&A session (during which the bulk of the
questions were about Johnson’s time as governor) ACLU Executive
Director Anthony Romero asked Johnson what he’d say to ACLU
card-carrying members who were concerned that a vote cast for
Johnson would be a vote taken from Obama, and thus a vote for the
GOP. “Do you run the risk, in other words, of being a Ralph Nader,
given the fact that you have so much more coincidence with the
president’s agenda than with Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich?”

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