COMMENTARY: Donald Trump has tried hard to consolidate his “base” in Cleveland. Nonetheless, fiscally-conservative Republicans, many of whom are concerned about the rhetoric and likely policy proposals of their party’s standard-bearer, may be looking for viable alternatives.
Former New Mexico governor and current Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson is likely their only alternative (assuming that disaffected Trump supporters don’t shift to Hillary Clinton).
As Johnson has come under closer scrutiny, his spending record as New Mexico’s governor has come under attack from some corners. National Review columnist James Spiller, for one, wrote a scathing article in which he argued that Johnson’s is “not conservative and not even all that libertarian” based largely on Johnson’s fiscal record which he further labels “big-government.”
To understand Johnson’s spending record, it is important to understand something about New Mexico politics. Throughout his tenure, Johnson contended with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both of New Mexico’s legislative bodies. These majorities amounted to 60 percent of all legislators being Democrats during Johnson’s term. Outnumbered in the Legislature, Johnson’s veto pen became his primary weapon. He used it with gusto, turning away 739 bills during his tenure. His heavy use of the veto is a strong point in his favor among fiscal conservatives.
Did Johnson’s veto pen stem the spending tide? Not entirely. Johnson’s term was marked by a 37.4 percent general fund spending increase. The general fund includes state funds, which the governor and Legislature directly control. In a vacuum, Johnson’s spending record is less stellar than his vetoes and small-government talk would suggest. However, creating a state budget is a complicated process involving negotiations, compromises, and conflicts between executive and legislative priorities and desires. That doesn’t even begin to address the obvious issue of party disagreement.
A more realistic approach is to examine of some of his fellow governors’ records. A review and comparison of Johnson’s spending record with the records of several prominent Republicans of the era shows that Johnson’s discretionary spending record is better than those of several of his most prominent Republican contemporaries.
- Tommy Thompson, the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001, raised spending by 42.5 percent between 1994 and 2000 despite his party controlling at least one legislative body every year between 1992 and 2002. On average, he raised general fund spending 7.1 percent per year, compared to Johnson’s 5.1 percent.
- In his 1995-2000 term, president-to-be George W. Bush also raised spending more than Johnson. In those years, Texas saw its spending increase by 34.8 percent compared to New Mexico, which experienced a 20 percent increase over the same period. While Bush never had a Republican majority in the State House, the Senate has been held by Republicans since 1997.
- Johnson’s record is not the most fiscally conservative among Republican governors of the era. In fact, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Michigan’s John Engler both raised spending about 3.6 percent per year, a lower rate than Johnson. Huckabee managed this low increase despite having to deal with a Democratic-controlled General Assembly for most of his term.
This comparison of Johnson’s fiscal record may leave some Libertarian party faithful less than impressed. After all, libertarians are supposed to have a dramatically-circumscribed view of the role of government. Such a view is useful in that it provides a template for what a libertarian leader’s policy would strive to achieve, but demanding policy purity is counterproductive to a movement whose greatest concern is getting noticed at all. It has, in recent elections, been lucky to receive 1 percent of the popular vote.
Libertarians should certainly push back against more government spending, but from a tactical perspective they must realize that becoming a mainstream political party will require them to moderate their policies.
Johnson’s executive experience is more relevant to the presidency than Clinton’s time in the Senate or Trump’s business experience. His record shows that he is capable of reasonably conservative spending — at least when his record is compared to contemporary Republicans. He may not be the perfect Libertarian candidate, but he is certainly the most libertarian choice in the 2016 field.
Tristan Goodwin is a policy analyst for the Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting liberty, opportunity, and prosperity for New Mexico.