Thursday, September 22, 2011

Johnson at GOP Debate

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 23, 2011

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson finally got invited to a Republican presidential debate in which all the major candidates participated. But he still wasn’t a major factor in the two-hour, nationally televised event in Orlando, Fla.

Johnson was the last of the nine GOP contenders to get a question from the Fox News moderators. That came 19 minutes into the debate. The next time Johnson was called upon was nearly 20 minutes later. After that the former governor had to wait more than a half hour to get another crack at a question.

But Johnson did get one of the evening’s biggest laugh lines. Talking about the economy, Johnson said, “My next door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration.”

Dave Weigel, a blogger for Slate quipped on Twitter, “Gary Johnson just got himself into some of the debate highlight reels. Mission accomplished.”

Weigel later reported that Johnson in a post-debate interview said he was unaware that conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh had made a similar joke earlier that day.

That wasn’t Johnson’s only positive reaction from the Orlando audience. He got boisterous applause when, asked about education policy, he said he’d abolish the federal Department of Education.

But nobody can accuse Johnson of pandering to the crowd. Johnson endured scattered boos from the Florida Republicans when he said trade with Cuba and chartered flights to Cuba are good ideas. “I think trade promotes friendship,” he said.

One of his rivals, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, quickly jumped in, saying Cuba is a “state sponsor of terrorism,” so there should be no trade with or flights to the communist nation 90 miles from Florida’s shores.

Asked which of the other GOP candidates he’d pick as a running mate, Johnson named Texas congressman and fellow libertarian Ron Paul. But Paul didn’t return the favor when asked the same question. He said he wouldn’t even think about a running mate until he got to be one of the top two candidates.

Johnson used other parts of his brief time in the spotlight to emphasize his promise to balance the budget in his first year as president and to overhaul the federal tax system and replace it with a “fair tax” or “consumption tax.”

He brought up his hundreds of vetoes during two terms as governor (1995 to 2002.) “I think I’ve vetoed more bills than any governor in the United States,” he said, “more than all governors combined.”

Political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics tweeted in response, “Fact checkers going nuts trying to verify Gary Johnson’s veto claim.” Sabato later gave Johnson a grade of C-plus for his debate performance.

That wasn’t Johnson’s most unflattering mention on Twitter. In fact, some national establishment commentators were downright cold.

“Gary Johnson has not gotten better at public speaking in the past few months,” tweeted Rachel Weiner of The Washington Post blog The Fix.

“Did Gov. Johnson’s advisors tell him to do MORE thumb twitching than his last debate?” said Miles Kahn, a writer for the Comedy Channel’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“Gary Johnson reminds me of the [Saturday Night Live] version of Al Gore,” wrote Aaron Blake of The Fix.

Thursday’s debate was co-sponsored by Fox News and Google. The next scheduled debate, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, is scheduled for Oct. 11. It’s not clear whether Johnson will be participating.

UPDATE: 11:05 p.m. The Huffington Post has revealed that Johnson's dog joke was provided to him by KOB radio host Jim Villanucci.

HuffPost’s Sara Kenigsberg spoke to Johnson about the joke shortly after the GOP debate ended. Johnson told her that Jim Villanucci, a former "Tonight Show" writer and current radio host on Albuquerque’s KKOB station, sent him several jokes late Thursday afternoon. "He texted me about eight one-liners that maybe I could use so it was one of those things that, 'wow, that was really funny," Johnson said. He didn't know about Limbaugh telling the joke earlier today.

Here's Johnson's big moment Thursday night: