When I completed my second term as Governor of New Mexico in 2003, I was done.
I had been elected Governor when everyone said I didn’t have a chance. A businessman who had never sought or held elected office, running as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, my prospects for success were dismissed by Republicans and Democrats alike.
But I worked hard, financed my own campaign, and told New Mexicans what I would do if elected: Reduce the size of the government, cut taxes and apply business-like common sense to the job of governing. They elected me, I did what I said I would do, and they re-elected me by an even bigger margin. After that second term, I walked away to resume what was -- and is -- a pretty good life.
I have had the good fortune to have climbed the highest mountain on all of the seven continents, got to build my dream home, and enjoyed the freedom I had gained from building a successful business from scratch, making some money, and creating the lifestyle I wanted.
As for being Governor, I did a good job -- good government was easy. I worked hard. I did what I said I would do. I told people the truth, and I tried to run the state the same way I ran my business, and my life. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Deliver what you can on time and under budget. And most of all, don’t waste anyone’s time or money. I vetoed bills we didn’t need nor couldn’t afford, 750 of them. To this day, some call me “Governor Veto”.
I cut the growth of government in half, and reduced the number of state employees by more than 1,000, without any mass firings or layoffs. All it took was good management and a willingness to challenge the status quo. We cut taxes. We shifted Medicaid to a managed care system -- similar to the health coverage for state employees -- and cut costs by at least 20%. I scrutinized regulations to be sure they were both essential and not unnecessarily burdensome for individuals and businesses.
Dealing with a Democrat-controlled legislature, I certainly wasn’t able to do all that I wanted to do. Year after year, I proposed a full-blown education voucher program. The teachers’ unions and Democrats wouldn’t let it happen. But we put the issue on the front burner -- long before it was fashionable.
In addition, I created quite a stir nationally by proposing, in 1999, that marijuana be legalized. I was the highest ranking official in the nation to do so, and at the time -- as opposed to now, it was not a popular idea. Everyone recognized, beginning with me, that it would be political suicide. But I didn’t have any further political ambitions, and more importantly, it was the right thing to do.
Enforcing and prosecuting laws against simple marijuana possession were clogging up our courts, overcrowding our jails, costing taxpayers millions of dollars and doing permanent harm to thousands of young lives. All that because we had criminalized a nonviolent behavior that an estimated 140 million Americans have engaged in at some point in their lives. It didn’t make sense, and I said so. It wasn’t about marijuana being good or bad for an individual. It was about a modern-day Prohibition that was not only not working, but doing far more harm than good, at tremendous human and financial cost.
My poll numbers fell through the floor for a couple of months, especially when the national media decided that it was a big deal that a Republican governor would take such a controversial and normally “liberal” stand. However, a funny thing happened. My approval rating recovered, and far more significantly, my political “suicide” helped prompt a national conversation that continues today, with a majority of Americans now supporting marijuana legalization.
I enjoyed being Governor. I didn’t enjoy the politics, but it was undeniably satisfying to make a difference in people’s lives, force debates on issues that needed to be discussed, and put the principles of smaller government and greater freedom into practice. It’s one thing to talk about liberty. It’s another to actually govern with liberty as a guiding policy. I’d like to think I showed that it could be done.
Apparently, some agree that it can be -- and was -- done. During the presidential campaign of 2012, the decidedly fiscally conservative Club for Growth looked at my record as Governor, and concluded that I would be a “pro-growth” President, citing our reductions in spending growth, the tax cuts we implemented, and the regulatory environment we created. At the same time, the ACLU also looked at my record, and gave me the highest rating on civil liberties of all the candidates, higher than Barack Obama and Ron Paul.
I firmly believe that the majority of Americans are, in fact, “conservative” when it comes to the size and cost of government, while being socially “liberal” when it comes to individuals being free to make their own choices and control their own lives. That’s how I tried to govern, and what I believe today.
After my term-limited service as Governor was finished, I largely stayed away from politics. I don’t like professional politicians, and certainly don’t want to be one. I went home, pursued my passions for skiing and cycling, climbed Mt. Everest, built my dream house and enjoyed my freedom. Sure, I stayed involved in some issues I cared about and in which I could make a contribution, such as drug policy and school choice.
Life was good, and it still is.
In 2009, I created the Our America Initiative, a not-for-profit advocacy organization with the mission of adding a needed fiscal conservative, socially liberal voice to America’s policy debates. That provided an opportunity to travel the country, organize at the grassroots and offer a “home” for those who share the notion of restoring freedom and opportunity as the real American values.
And in 2011, I made the decision to run for President. I entered the race as a Republican, believing that America was ready for a different kind of GOP candidate who had a proven record of governing according to what I consider to be real conservatism: Government that is truly limited in size and cost and that stays out of American bedrooms and boardrooms.
We fought hard, but the establishment and its special interest sponsors apparently didn’t want anything to do with a guy who would actually challenge the status quo and upset their apple cart. There was no room for a candidate who was once described as “the most dangerous politician in America”. After all, I wanted to talk about the spending, the wars and the freedom-robbing social policies that have become their bread and butter -- literally.
The system is about fitting into their mold, and I didn’t fit. I couldn’t go to Iowa and evangelize about family “values” that are frankly none of the government’s business. I couldn’t go to South Carolina and talk about increasing defense spending at a time when we are broke. And I couldn’t go to Florida without telling the truth about entitlements and the need to reform Medicare and Social Security.
So I left the Republican primary circus and switched to the Libertarian Party. Libertarians, broadly speaking, are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The principles of less government and more freedom are there, and the experience of running as the candidate who could unapologetically advocate those principles was, well, liberating.
With the help of hundreds and thousands of great volunteers and supporters, I traveled to virtually every state, spoke to hundreds of groups, met with students in colleges and universities all across the country -- and was gratified to be able to put our ideas on the national stage to an extent that had never happened before. We didn’t win, but we made the media and the establishment take notice and garnered more votes than any Libertarian candidate in history.
Along the way, I learned a lot about the American people -- the most important lesson being a confirmation that the real majority doesn’t “relate” to either the Republicans or the Democrats, and if given the opportunity, will exercise a degree of political independence never before seen in our history. Americans, and especially the Millennials who are rapidly assuming a dominant role in both society and the economy, are fed up with politicians who lie, who don’t really want to change anything, and for whom being elected and reelected are ends in themselves.
Now, those Americans are looking ahead to the 2016 election -- and if they are like me, they don’t like what they see. Is there anything about the current field of candidates that even hints at changing the disastrous trends of recent years? We are seeing only slight nibbles around the edge of a tax code that is fundamentally wrong. An $18 trillion debt that threatens the very underpinnings of our economy and, in fact, our national security, is hardly mentioned, all while the politicians are obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s emails and a County Clerk in Kentucky whose 15 minutes of fame have already lingered for too long.
There were great hopes in some libertarian corners for Senator Rand Paul. I endorsed his father in 2008, and in fact, urged my Republican supporters in Iowa to support him in 2012. Unfortunately, Rand, in his quest to have one foot in the libertarian camp and the other in the establishment Republican museum, has emerged with a vague mix of positions that is clearly not compelling. There is a price to be paid for selling out -- and he is paying it.
The previously presumed Republican front-runner, Jeb Bush, is fading fast as even “mainstream” Republican voters are increasingly refusing to take their orders from party leaders and funders who think he should be President just because he’s a Bush. Fairly or not, “been there, done that” isn’t working for a country that is absolutely fed up with business-as-usual.
I could go on, but the point is clear: On the Republican side, Americans are seeing, with one glaring exception, a battalion of candidates who look, sound and feel like the same Republican presidential candidates voters have rejected in the past two elections. None are instilling any confidence that government would be smaller, smarter or less costly if they were to be elected than it is today.
And about that exception…the Trump phenomenon. What does it say about the level of discontent that a professional salesman can launch a presidential campaign with a promise to build our very own Great Wall of China and a vague promise to “make America great again” can assemble a coalition of the pissed-off sufficient in size to make him the Republican standard-bearer?
In the other “major” party, the choices are equally alarming. Ms. Clinton, their version of “been there, done that”, is having her own problems claiming the throne she presumes to be rightfully hers. Never mind the unbelievable lack of judgment involved in storing official, sensitive emails in a private server in a bathroom. We’re looking at a “front runner” who, as Secretary of State, presided over a descent into foreign policy chaos that is virtually unmatched in American history.
As with Trump on the Republican side, the Democrats have devolved to the point that the candidate going toe-to-toe with Ms. Clinton, both in the polls and in fundraising, is Bernie Sanders, a self-described Socialist to whom the free market is not just foreign, but evil. His support, which like Trump, is befuddling the establishment, has nothing to do with socialism. He’s just the Democrats’ version of “none of the above” -- and if some of the polls can be believed, he’s winning.
What does all this tell me? It tells me that America may finally be ready for a presidential candidate who DOES believe in the free market, but rejects crony capitalism and the subsidies, deals, bailouts and tax breaks that come with it. They may be ready for a candidate who actually governed a border state...and DOESN’T believe that a Great Wall is a substitute for immigration reform that today’s politicians cannot summon the courage to enact.
Those Millennials who will soon be a full one-third of American adults may be ready to become engaged in politics with a candidate who wants to give them a government that will leave them alone, get its finances in order so that they don’t inherit an economic collapse, and stop labeling them as criminals for smoking a joint in the privacy of their own homes.
And Americans who are rightfully and deeply concerned that a feckless foreign policy is allowing the likes of ISIS to not only threaten our safety, but humiliate us, may be ready for a candidate who will put politics aside and engage in reality-based foreign and military policies that actually fulfill government’s most basic responsibility to keep us -- and our freedoms -- safe.
Maybe, just maybe, America is ready. And maybe that’s why I would want to run for President.
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