Jon Huntsman: The Republicans’ canary in a coal mine

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Oct 28, 2011

The fate of Jon Huntsman’s candidacy for president will go a long way toward determining whether sanity prevails in the Republican Party and whether it has any chance of wresting the presidency from the grasp of Democrat Barack Obama. Huntsman, whose last two jobs were ambassador to China and governor of Utah, does not need to win his party’s nomination for Republicans to pass those two tests. But if Huntsman’s 1 percent support level doesn’t radically improve and if he quickly is drummed out of the primary field because he espouses moderate to traditionally conservative positions, held by the vast majority of U.S. general election voters, then the Republicans will lose the election and be relegated, at most, to the role of “Drs. No” in the House of Representatives.

Huntsman is an impressive candidate by virtually any rational measure. The 51-year-old son of a Utah billionaire-industrialist left the Utah statehouse in 2009, very early in his second term, when appointed by President Obama to become our emissary in Beijing. At the time, Huntsman was sporting approval levels which approached 90 percent. During Huntsman’s first term, Utah was the nation’s leader in job creation. He likes to remind opponent Mitt Romney, a sometimes Utahn and Mormon co-religionist, that Massachusetts ranked 47th in that category when Mitt was governor. Huntsman reduced Utah’s tax rates, yet produced a healthy surplus, winning that state the title of Best Managed from Pew Research. Huntsman was wildly popular in ultra-conservative Utah despite backing civil unions for same-sex couples. He joined with other states in strong collective measures designed to reduce the pace of climate change (which Huntsman believes is occurring). He has also clearly stated his belief in evolution. He has backed progressive policies involving immigrants. Huntsman threatened veto of a bill that would have eliminated in-state tuition rates for the children of illegals and in 2005, signed a bill allowing illegal aliens to obtain drivers’ licenses. New York flunked its own sanity test in 2007 for politically lynching Gov. Eliot Spitzer when he made the same proposal — in a progressive and heavily Democratic state. (See “Changing Course …” a chapter in The Weekender’s 2010 book “Journal of the Plague Year.”)

In addition to an outstanding record in a long list of government positions — focusing on international trade and diplomacy in the Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43 and Obama administrations — Huntsman has an abundance of attributes that voters are enthralled with. He’s handsome and has an equally attractive wife. They have six cute and accomplished kids, including two adopted from China and India. Huntsman is fluent in three Chinese dialects, rides Harleys and dropped out of high school to play keyboards in his rock band Wizard (but GED’d and later graduated from an Ivy). Huntsman is so appealing that after his landslide re-election as Utah’s governor in 2008, he was widely expected to seek the presidency in 2012. His appointment to the China post by President Obama was cynically viewed by many political observers as in part motivated by the president’s desire to eliminate a formidable potential opponent. If that was the objective, it failed, as Huntsman spotlighted perhaps his only glaring demerit as a public servant. He doesn’t stay in his jobs very long. Elected officials, especially governors, have a responsibility to serve out the terms they asked voters to elect them to.

With so much going for him, how is it that Huntsman is way behind Republican front-runners Romney, Perry and Pizza-Man Herman Cain, to say nothing of Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann? The reasons for his last place standing may be Huntsman’s relatively late entry into the field and his strategy of focusing on the early primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. If that strategy works tolerably well, as it has in the past for candidates like John McCain (2000) and Gary Hart (1984), sanity and rationality may still prevail. However, if Huntsman’s virtually non-existent support persists due to his advocacy of mainstream policy, then the Republicans will flunk the sanity test. There are signs that this is happening. The ascendant Tea Party wing of the GOP hates Huntsman, not merely for his mainstream but moderately conservative positions, but also for serving as ambassador to China. Why? They don’t like China or the man who gave him the job. Huntsman recently was quizzed by a Tea Party activist at Mutt’s Rally, an ultra-conservative political event in Greer, South Carolina about the right wing rumor that China was setting up “free trade zones” in the western United States. Huntsman wasn’t just our envoy to the Chinese enemy behemoth, but the appointee of another enemy of America, namely B. Hussein Obama.

Sadly, that sort of reasoning passes for patriotism in many Tea Party cells these days.
A general election contested by Jon Huntsman and Barack Obama would not only give Republicans an excellent chance of winning, but provide voters a clear choice between candidates who have very different ideas, but whose feet are firmly planted in the 21st century. For example, President Obama has offered a tax plan which raises rates for “millionaires and billionaires” only and selectively reduces some deductions and loopholes. Otherwise, what he proposes would be business as usual. Candidate Huntsman would radically overhaul the tax code, would eliminate all deductions and the taxation of capital gains and dividends and establish three income categories to be taxed at rates of 8, 14 and 23 percent. On this point, The Weekender is staunchly in Huntsman’s corner and, for one, hopes to have the opportunity to choose between these serious men and their serious proposals and records of public service. I hope this, not just to have the real and substantive choice it would provide, but because it would be sad and distressing to think that the Party of Lincoln has descended into madness.



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