GOP's Gary Johnson: Obama Too Slow Ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

WASHINGTON -- Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a libertarian considering a presidential bid, said this week that President Obama has helped advance gay rights -- but not quickly enough.

"I think the dialogue was advanced, but when it came to 'don't ask, don't tell,' I would've let that court ruling stand," Johnson said on CBSNews.com's Washington Unplugged on Friday.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that the military's policy banning gay men and women from serving openly in the military was unconstitutional. Mr. Obama's Justice Department decided to appeal the ruling even though the administration opposed policy, because it is the department's obligation to defend all federal laws, they said.

Mr. Obama argued that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was better reversed through legislation than the courts -- a stance that tested the patience of gay rights advocates. In a significant victory for the president and gay rights advocates, Congress did pass a repeal of the policy in December. However, actually implementing the repeal is expected to take some months, and some Republicans are suggesting the fight isn't over.

"Let's get rid of don't ask, don't tell," Johnson said. "I become emotional over the fact that we have young men and women in the service that are gay and can't express that, who are putting their lives on the line."

His position is a far cry from that of some other potential Republican presidential candidates in Washington this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for instance, said in Iowa this month that it would be "reasonable" to consider withholding funding to keep the repeal from going into place. Pawlenty, who's given strong signs he'll jump into the race, has emphasized his credentials as a social conservative.

The fight over the Republican party's acceptance of gay conservatives and gay rights came to a head at CPAC, after organizers invited the gay conservative group GOProud to be an official participant. Some social conservative groups protested the convention as a result, but gay conservatives and their allies this week declared victory, observing that they were well-received at the event. One of the more popular, high-profile politicians at CPAC this week is Rep. Ron Paul, another possible libertarian presidential contender.

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Johnson's support for gay rights (he has said he supports gay unions, suggesting the government shouldn't be involved in marriage at all) and his support for marijuana legalization have drawn comparisons to Paul. It's also spurred some in Washington to cast him as more of a fringe candidate -- Johnson dug into the issue of marijuana legalization during this speech at CPAC, but organizers started playing music while he was still speaking, as if to hasten his exit off stage.

Johnson's speech, however, left out issues of gay rights. In fact, as he touted his record as a self-made businessman and successful Republican governor in a Democratic state, Johnson sounded more like Mitt Romney that Ron Paul.

"First and foremost, I'm an entrepreneur, [and] I view my venture into politics as entrepreneurial," he said. Voters in New Mexico embraced him, he said, because he promised "to run government like a business."

Johnson said the Republican party has to accept a range of voices -- including his, Paul's, Romney's and others -- in order to grow the party base.

"The voice of the Republican party -- that's up for grabs. It's a contest," he said. "But you've got to provide Republicans with an alternative also, so perhaps I'm engaged in that contest."

Johnson says he's been traveling the country with his nonprofit political action committee Our America Initiative to see how other conservatives receive his message. So far, so good, he said.

"I live in Taos, New Mexico," he said. "I haven't been given my ticket back yet."

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