9.13.2010

A chat with Ron Johnson, pt III: the domestic agenda and the campaign

"We have to out-organize community organizers."

My interview with Ron Johnson on foreign and economic policy left me wanting to know more about his domestic agenda -- facets we unfortunately ran out of time to discuss.

So I was glad to have a few minutes this evening, on the eve of the election, to speak with the candidate again. I wasn't able to record this conversation, but was able to look somewhat more at where his campaign has been in recent months.

He is quick to deny that he is "the Tea Party candidate," although he does suggest that his campaign intersects with the interests of the grassroots conservative organization. "They are concerned about current levels of spending and debt... and concerned about our country being in peril," Johnson said, continuing, "The federal government has way overstepped its bounds; they're [the Tea Party] looking to scale back."

The Tea Party also seems to have drawn Johnson into politics this season: he cites a Tea Party speech he gave in Oshkosh as the time he began to be asked to run; the passage of the health care bill spurred him to "seriously consider" candidacy. It's unclear where Johnson draws the line between the Tea Party and himself, but their interests certainly lie along the same trajectory.

And he rejects labels. I asked if one could set up a Republican spectrum, with Sarah Palin as populist rabble-rouser on one end and Paul Ryan as policy-wonk technocrat on the other -- where would Johnson fall? "I can't categorize myself with anybody," Johnson replied. He claims to be his own man, running on his own biography and "31 years' experience" in the private sector. These experiences, he says, will allow him to be effective as soon as he gets to Washington: he rejected the idea that legislative experience, or being a "career politician," would make one more able to fully represent his constituents. Indeed, Johnson said, "I think that kind of experience is vastly overrated. I have people who will help me navigate... I'm a pretty good problem solver."

Those problems are largely fiscal. Throughout our conversation, he came back to two major ideas: reducing spending and repealing the health care bill. These two points were the major themes that seem to inform all of Johnson's positions. He was certainly set against any further stimulus package, and suggested using the unspent money of the first package to pay down debt rather than for further spending. Asked about any decisions over which he might disagree with other Republican colleagues, he mentioned spending again: "I certainly was not happy when Republicans were spending more than they were taking in."

Restraining federal oversteps also inform his judicial outlook: he would not vote to confirm Elena Kagan. "She disqualified herself" over her stance on Army recruiting at Harvard; "It's clear she will be a judicial activist."

Johnson's final message was one that seems central, also, to the Tea Party: "Do voters want to send to Washington a career politician... or a citizen legislator?"