Former Governor Gary Johnson upended incumbent Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich’s waltz to reelection a few weeks ago when he unexpectedly jumped into this year’s New Mexico U.S. Senate race.
In 2016, I helped juggle the deluge of mainstream media interview requests for Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, as deputy communications director for the Libertarian presidential ticket.
When a few of those reporters I’d worked with in 2016 reached out to confirm if a Gary Johnson Senate run was more than just a rumor, one asked, in wrapping up the call: What do you make of this?
So I told that reporter: Well, just speaking for myself - not the Governor or the soon to be filed-with-the-FEC campaign, nor any other names associated with Johnson’s presidential campaigns - permit me to think out loud here… you know, I’m starting to think that a Gary Johnson in the United States Senate could actually be a pretty darn good thing.
I’m not affiliated with this campaign. But I do think it’s a good thing. Not just because I grew to like the guy on a personal level, sitting together waiting for the Governor to go on camera, commiserating during a few particularly grueling rounds of crosstown media hits. Not just because I share his classically liberal brand of Libertarian thought that doesn’t shy away from accenting social tolerance and the benefits of free trade and immigration in tandem with cutting taxes and easing regulation.
In fact, Gary Johnson sitting in the United States Senate as neither a Democrat nor a Republican would be good thing for the too-often-of-late broken institution of the Senate. It could serve up a welcome antidote to the polarized partisan atmosphere that’s paralyzing this country. And it could chart a new, more effective, course for Libertarian-branded politics that could give voice to voters nationwide who don’t “fit” comfortably - and aren’t welcome by tribalized bases - into the current Democratic and Republican electoral coalitions.
A Senator Gary Johnson would arrive from his home near the mountains of Taos and plant a figurative folding chair right in the middle of the Senate floor, like Oregon’s independent Sen. Wayne Morse did literally on Swearing In day back 1953. That would signify not only Johnson’s independence of both conferences, but also an openness to serve as a bridge for wary partisans of both sides who might need some cover to work together on issues that dovetail with his Libertarian agenda, like criminal justice reform, immigration or free trade.
It would be good for the institution of the United States Senate to usher in a renaissance of its historical cross-partisan collegiality and effectiveness.
Johnson would often comment while waiting in a TV news green room about how instinctively appalled he often is by the angry, illibertarian rhetoric of both the Democratic and the Republican party bases: the xenophobic Trumpian tendency in the GOP and the ever-outraged anti-inequality warriors of Democratic lefty activists. That’s a wariness that helps make Gary Johnson a Libertarian who has the temperament necessary to become the linchpin in multiple more “Gangs” of Senators working together.
And that would re-orient a strategy, once widely held among libertarians, that allows working freely with both liberals and conservatives to achieve policy ends, distinct from the more-recently favored strategy of libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who’s working within the GOP and having to negotiate the often unlibertarian biases of its base.
Let’s hope Paul is opening up to this strategy; he’s endorsed Johnson despite his not running as a Republican. Even the Koch brothers’ network is making noises that it’s now open to building cross-party coalitions to enact items on its agenda, recognizing the limits of solely siding with a Trump-addled, demographically-challenged GOP. And it could diffuse some of the accusatory polarized atmosphere that’s choking us all today.
Of course, if events force his hand, a Senator Gary Johnson wouldn’t hesitate to be that lone “conscience of the Senate.” We could depend on a Senator Johnson to stand up - alone if necessary - to any proposals that threaten our uniquely American constitutional liberties from Democrats and Republicans united after a 9/11-scale disaster.
But the opportunities for coalition-building to implement Libertarian policy goals would offer themselves up more often.
Take free trade, one of the issues Johnson states that he is running for the Senate to fight for. Support for foreign trade is at an all-time high in recorded polling, but opponents are vastly over-represented in the bases of both parties - downscale populist Trump Republicans and Democratic Socialist of America-inspired activists and unions. While they may know supporting a trade agreement is the right thing to do, too many Democratic and Republican Members are more afraid to do so today than in 1993, when a bipartisan coalition mustered the will to pass NAFTA despite significant public opposition.
A Senator Gary Johnson could forge a grand, multi-partisan coalition (loop in Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King, probably, here too) that could counter the bases’ accusations of collaborating with the enemy party and allow senators to curry favor with the trade-supporting moderate middle they’ll need on future general Election Days.
Yes, Gary Johnson in the Senate could be good for advancing a Libertarian political agenda, but it also could be a “shot in the arm” for the institution of the Senate and, hopefully, chart a course for relief from our nationwide paralyzing polarization.