Gary Johnson: Lower taxes, no auto bailouts

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson told the Detroit Economic Club he would not have bailed out General Motors Corp. and Chrysler in 2008 but promised a swift reduction in taxes and a path to citizenship for immigrants if elected.

Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, appeared before a crowd of 300 at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in an hour-long, wide-ranging discussion that also touched on the Flint water crisis, the war in Iraq, police profiling of blacks and his own flap of not knowing the Syrian city of Aleppo, which has been central to that country’s civil war.

“Taxes will not go up in a Johnson presidency,” Johnson said. “Certainly that government will get smaller, taxes simplified.”

On the 2008 and 2009 auto industry loans given by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and championed by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Johnson was resolute.

“I would not have bailed out the auto industry. I would not have bailed out Wall Street,” he said. “They made horrible choices. They should have been rewarded for their horrible choices by going bankrupt.”

Johnson called the water crisis in Flint a “catastrophic failure” but refused to place blame on Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. Although the 63-year-old Libertarian favors less government involvement in citizens’ lives, he said he supports the role of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect people from pollution.

As governor, Johnson said he held open-door sessions with New Mexico residents after 4 p.m. that would have helped bring the Flint lead contamination of drinking water to light if it hadn’t been raised through government channels.

In response to questions from a moderator, the Libertarian candidate said reforms need to take place because African Americans tend to be profiled as criminal suspects more than others and that the Black Lives Matter movement is important.

“We have our heads in the sand. I’ve had my head in the sand,” Johnson said of the allegations of police abuse against black Americans.

When asked about an MSNBC interview in which he could not identify the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, he said, “I should have known that, and there’s no excuse.”

In a news conference after his speech, Johnson said he has “no chance” of getting elected if he and his running mate are denied a chance to be a part of the presidential debates. But he predicts he will reach the 15 percent threshold in national polling to qualify for the three debates.

“There’s gigantic momentum,” he said.

During an interview with The Detroit News editorial board, Johnson said the biggest threat in the world is North Korea and its attempted development of intercontinental nuclear weapons. He said he would work with China to curb it.

The way to diffuse the situation, he said, is to negotiate an agreement with North Korea, China and South Korea, for dismantling nuclear weapons in return for getting the United States to withdraw about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea near the North Korean border to discourage an attack from the communist regime.

When asked when it is appropriate for the United States to intervene militarily, Johnson said simply: “When attacked.” He said U.S. involvement for humanitarian and other reasons tends not to work, especially in Syria.

Clinton, he said to the editorial board, is “qualified” to be president but predicted she will be more “hawkish” than all the candidates in this year’s race. Johnson declared Republican Donald Trump unfit and unqualified to be president, predicting the New York businessman would end up spending more than any other candidate if elected given his promises.

“Donald Trump ... just go down the list. I do believe that he has said 150 things that would disqualify anyone else from being president,” he said. “But for me, personally, it starts with 11 million undocumented workers, when he tweets the tragedy of the day and says, ‘See this why I should be elected president.’”

Johnson and his running mate, former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, have been on a media blitz, trying to boost Johnson’s polling numbers above the 15 percent needed to be included in the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.

In a recent interview with The Detroit News and other newspapers, Johnson expressed confidence he could shake up the race if he can share the same debate stage as Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, who toured Flint on Wednesday.

At the Detroit Economic Club, Johnson said he doesn’t have a chance to gain more support and win if he can’t participate in the presidential debates because “70 percent of Americans don’t know who I am” and the viewership for the debates is bigger than for the Super Bowl.

On Wednesday, the Johnson-Weld campaign said it had gotten on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Johnson was not on Michigan’s November 2012 ballot, but was registered to receive write-in votes.

Michigan’s fledgling Libertarian Party has high hopes of gaining influence in future state elections because of Johnson’s campaign, which got the support of 7.5 percent of 600 likely state voters in a July 30-Aug. 1 Detroit News-WDIV poll.

Johnson’s speech came as his campaign is ramping up efforts in Michigan. Radio ads have been airing in the Grand Rapids area for the past week, and the party plans to run a “Michigan-specific” campaign in mid-October in Metro Detroit, said Bill Gelineau, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.

The radio ad buy on Metro Detroit stations will range between $20,000 and $30,000 and will target the Libertarian Party’s free-market economic philosophies toward working women in business, Gelineau said.

If Johnson can top 154,040 votes in Michigan, Libertarians would be included on the August 2018 primary ballot and be positioned politically to disrupt the two-party dominance, Gelineau said.

More than 154,000 voters would be about 3.3 percent of the vote, if turnout is the same as 2012. A lower turnout would drive Johnson’s percentage higher.

If Johnson wins 5 percent of the national popular vote, the Libertarian Party would be able to participate in the 2020 presidential primary, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s office. The last time a minor party was in the presidential primary was 2000, after Reform Party candidate Ross Perot’s failed 1996 White House bid, Woodhams said.

But Libertarian Party leaders in Michigan acknowledge they face organizational barriers and lack money to coordinate a grassroots campaign to boost Johnson. The party has no campaign office so volunteers are spread across the state, working from their homes and businesses, said Scotty Boman, Michigan director of the Johnson-Weld campaign.

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming