TAOS, New Mexico — Gary Johnson has always cut a distinctive political profile.
After growing up in Albuquerque, he built a successful construction business while nurturing his hobby as an endurance athlete.
In 1994, at age 41, he entered politics by running for governor of New Mexico as a Republican. He rode his party's national tide — that was the year Republicans captured both houses of Congress — to victory and governed as a strict fiscal conservative.
Now, turned off by the GOP's social conservatism and truculent immigration stance, he seeks the presidency as the Libertarian Party nominee with an idiosyncratic agenda. He favors smaller government in the social as well as economic realm, including legalization of marijuana. His running mate, William Weld, who served as governor of Massachusetts in the 1990s, is also a former Republican.
Johnson discussed his campaign with me over huevos rancheros in a restaurant near his home in this scenic city. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: Tell me about the effect that your paragliding accident had on your life.
JOHNSON: In 2005, I had a really serious paragliding accident. I lost an inch and a half in height on that accident from the fracture in my back. And it took me three years to fully recover — although six months after the accident, I did bicycle from Santa Fe to Napa Valley.
HARWOOD: Now, in the recovery, you were experiencing pain, which you treated with marijuana.
JOHNSON: It was really painful and I have an aversion to painkillers. I'm laying on the floor and someone comes by and they said, "You know, you want me to get you some marijuana for this?" And I thought, "Yes, I do. Please." And I think that it absolutely helped me through this period that was really, really difficult.
HARWOOD: You became the chief executive of a cannabis company. Is, in any way, the run that you're making this time about building your profile for that purpose — for business purposes?
JOHNSON: No. Not in any way. The fact that I got to be the CEO of a publicly traded company in the marijuana space, that was something that was completely unexpected. But very quickly, marijuana products medicinally compete with legal prescription drugs that statistically kill 100,000 people a year. There's not been one documented death due to marijuana.
Then on the recreational side, I've always maintained that legalizing marijuana will lead to less overall substance abuse because people will find it as such a safer alternative than everything else that's out there, starting with alcohol.
The president of the United States, hiring the surgeon general, can de-schedule marijuana as a class one narcotic. And that would open up the research and the development.
HARWOOD: And you would want to do that?
JOHNSON: I would want to do that. Yes.
HARWOOD: How many miles did you ride on your bike to get here today?
JOHNSON: Well, it was about 14, but it's all uphill. All uphill. It'll be a much nicer ride going back down.
HARWOOD: Now, given your passion for athletics, I'm surprised you're running for president of the United States.
JOHNSON: If I'm not elected, I will probably ski somewhere in the vicinity of 120 days next season.
HARWOOD: It seems to me not to be an accident that the two halves of your ticket are both former Republican governors. What does that tell you about the Republican Party, that that's what's ended up on the Libertarian ticket?
JOHNSON: Thirty percent of Republicans believe the scourge of the Earth is Mexican immigration. What's the reason for why I don't have a job? Well, make, make Mexican immigration the scapegoat for that. I understand why there's that sentiment. And there's a logic to the fact that they're coming over. They're taking our jobs. They're taking, you know, they're siphoning off our welfare system.
When the reality is anything but. They are not taking jobs that U.S. citizens want. They're the cream of the crop when it comes to workers. And they are contributing to the economy.
HARWOOD: Do you see [Donald] Trump as a freak event within the Republican Party? Or does his emergence say something about where the Republican Party has gravitated to?
JOHNSON: He's tapped into that anger. But that is not, in my opinion, representative of the majority of the Republican Party. And where's that representation? Well, I think it's me. I think it's me right now. It's the Libertarian Party. It's a big six-lane highway down the middle that Bill Weld and myself are occupying.
I've been a self-declared Libertarian since 1971. What was the old saying? That if you weren't a Democrat in college, you didn't have a heart. And if you weren't a Republican in later life, you didn't have a brain.
Well, I happen to think libertarian kind of encompasses hearts and brains both. And that's what we all are about.
HARWOOD: Isn't your problem that on economic policy, Americans who are feeling stagnant in this economy want more from government, not less?
JOHNSON: You could be right. But if Bernie Sanders supporters, and this is my hypothesis [also believe] that if you're looking for opportunity equality, that is something that's achievable.
Nothing is free. Was there anything that Hillary [Clinton] didn't promise in her acceptance speech to anybody?
HARWOOD: Do you think that there's no reason to raise taxes on anyone, including the most affluent people in the country?
JOHNSON: I'm not getting elected dictator or king. But if I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate income tax. I would eliminate corporate tax. And I would replace it with one federal consumption tax.
HARWOOD: What happens to Wall Street regulation and Dodd-Frank specifically under Gary Johnson?
JOHNSON: Well, I would love to scrap it and get rid of it.
HARWOOD: The Libertarian platform calls for phasing out the Social Security system.
JOHNSON: I don't agree completely with the platform of the Libertarian Party. And how could you phase out Social Security? I don't see that happening, but there does need to be reform to Social Security.
HARWOOD: Is it part of your objective to do something that sets off a chain of events that busts up the two-party system as we now know it?
JOHNSON: Maybe we're there already. I mean, maybe that's going to be the consequence of what we do — at a minimum.
HARWOOD: Let's say Hillary Clinton's elected, and you have a solid showing. Trump loses. Where does the Republican Party go after that?
JOHNSON: This is the demise of the Republican Party. This is an opportunity, I think, for the Libertarian Party to become a major party.
HARWOOD: We're sitting in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. What would you do about climate?
JOHNSON: I do think that climate change is occurring, that it is man-caused. One of the proposals that I think is a very libertarian proposal, and I'm just open to this, is taxing carbon emission that may have the result of being self-regulating.
HARWOOD: So you agree with the people who say the answer is to put a price on carbon and then the market will take care of it.
JOHNSON: The market will take care of it. I mean, when you look at it from the standpoint of better results, and actually less money to achieve those results, that's what is being professed by a carbon tax.
HARWOOD: You would like that better than, say, the Obama clean power plan?
JOHNSON: Well yes. My understanding of carbon tax is that it can accomplish all these things in a very free market way. Coal is a great free market example right now. You and I do not want carbon emission. We don't want it. right now. Natural gas costs less than coal. So there are no new coal plants that are going to be built, given the price of natural gas. And that's something that you and I desire. So it's happening. I'm afraid that coal, from a free market standpoint, has been done in.
HARWOOD: You are drawing about 10 percent in our most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
JOHNSON: None of the polls being conducted right now have us on the top line. None of them. It's always Trump and Clinton and then second question, third question, "Well, what if you add Johnson-Weld?" And then 99 percent of the media just reports line one. Well — I thought it was interesting over the weekend, Colorado came in at 15 percent.
All of our analytics, all of our social media analytics suggest that we're going to continue this. We have not topped out in any way. And right now today, 60 percent of Americans don't even know who we are. So back to if we were just on the top line, and I recognize that a lot of that has to do with just how polarizing the two of them are. But people don't realize that there is another choice.
HARWOOD: The history of third party candidates is that they go down as we get closer to the election. Only one time has a Libertarian nominee gotten 1 percent of the vote.
JOHNSON: Politics is momentum. And we have right now straight line momentum.
HARWOOD: So you think that 10 percent can become what by November?
JOHNSON: I do think there's a better than 50 percent chance that we'll be in the presidential debates. If we're not in the presidential debates, hey, no chance of winning. No chance.
HARWOOD: Do you accept that the 15 percent threshold (to qualify for the debates) is going to hold?
JOHNSON: I don't have an issue with 15 percent. But shouldn't the polls include my name on the top line? And shouldn't it be reported top line? That's my only issue. Fifteen percent? Not an issue.
HARWOOD: Let's say you get to 15 percent and you're in the debates.
JOHNSON: We could win.