On a breezy, overcast day in late June of 2011, former Governor and
Ambassador Jon Huntsman traveled to Liberty State Park in New Jersey to announce
his candidacy for President of the United States.
It was the same spot where Ronald Reagan officially kicked off his general election
campaign for President in September of 1980.
Like Reagan, Huntsman spoke with the Statue of Liberty in the background. And, like Reagan, he laid out an
optimistic vision of America based on his deeply held conservative beliefs.
Unfortunately for Huntsman, that’s where the similarity ends. His campaign for President never
gained altitude, and just over six months later, he dropped out of the race. And yet, perhaps more than any
other Republican candidate in the 2012 race, there remains a certain, “What
might have been?” element to his campaign.
It’s been widely reported that the Obama campaign feared a Huntsman
candidacy more than any other. If he
had been able to make it through the litmus test that has become the Republican
primary, would he have been a better nominee – and better embodiment of the GOP
– than Mitt Romney? The answer to
that question will obviously never be known.
What is known is that Jon Huntsman remains one of the most accomplished
Republicans in American politics today – someone who is not only able to
articulate a clear and consistent conservative message, but do so in a measured
and reasonable tone that attracts centrist support.
The Forum spoke with Huntsman
on December 7th to discuss his 2012 candidacy, the results of the
November general election, and his thoughts on the challenges facing the country
– and his party – in the coming years.
RF: What was the message of this year’s election?
JH: The message of this year’s election was that in the absence of an
alternative vision that speaks to opportunity and growth for all of our
citizens, we’re willing to take the status quo.
The status quo -- being imperfect and having stumbled from a public
policy standpoint during the last four years -- was at least for many a safer
bet than going with something new.
So was it a missed opportunity for Republicans? Of course it was a missed opportunity.
But it doesn’t do us a whole lot of good to go back and dissect it too
thoroughly, because we have to be looking ahead and recalibrate our message to
where the country is and why we lost certain demographics and more importantly,
begin articulating a message that really does speak to our place in history.
RF: What is the biggest myth about the Republican Party today?
JH: That we’re a party dismissive of 47 percent of the American
public. That we are monochromatic in terms of our outreach and thinking. That we are too fringy and not
willing to engage in negotiation and compromise that is critical and necessary
for movement of any policy.
All of these things serve to give the Republican name a bad rap in many corners of the country. Aside from the policies you
choose to propose and how you articulate them, we have to do something that
fundamentally changes the image of the Republican Party.
RF: What is the hardest truth that Republicans today have to face?
JH: That without being a reality-based, solutions-oriented party, we
have no future. If we can be a reality-based, solutions-oriented party, we
can capture the demographics and we can find solutions to our most vexing
problems -- which will require by the way, some element of compromise, because
without compromise, you cannot further an agenda.
As long as compromise is seen as something akin to treason, it becomes impossible for us to move the policy ball forward.
As long as compromise is seen as something akin to treason, it becomes impossible for us to move the policy
RF: You’ve talked a lot about there being a “trust deficit” between the American
people and Washington, D.C. Given the state of dysfunction in our nation’s
capital these days, how do we go about closing this deficit?
JH: It’s an important question, and the answers are not easy because they tend to be longer-term plays. But that
doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hunkering down and figuring out how to strategize
around somehow attacking these big transcendent issues that impinge on trust
even if they are longer-term plays. So when you look at the ways we
finance campaigns, this is a big one. And, what we have today is just
completely unsustainable in terms of serving the needs of our democracy
longer-term. The way in which we go about redistricting is long term
corrosive. We are already beginning to feel the effects of years and years
and years of partisanship in the area of redistricting. This is where a
lot of the divide begins, right at the localest of levels as legislatures
convene and carve up districts in ways that don’t speak to the overall good of
the people, but rather narrow political interests. So, that’s a big one.
Dealing with things like incumbency. You know, you can argue term limits all you want
-- and I’ve argued both sides. But
I’ve always been a supporter of term limits.
I was as governor. I term
limited myself. I tried to get term limits through my legislature, arguing
that the institution of incumbency increasingly grows very, very deep roots, and
that after a while, people don’t want to leave. When they do leave, they
end up swinging right through the revolving door.
And we wonder why we have crony capitalism in Washington, and why there’s
been a huge diminution of trust by the American people toward their elected
officials and their institutions of power.
So, dealing with the reality of revolving doors and people who tend to stick around too long, the way we finance politics, and the
very way that we go about carving up congressional districts – all of these
things I think are fundamental structural issues that need to be looked at and
indeed improved upon if we are to shore up the level of trust that the American
people have in politics. But I think the biggest issue of all is simply
recruiting good, trustworthy people into politics. As long as politics is
seen as something akin to the respect accorded to used car salesmen, you’re not
going to get the best and the brightest who choose to pursue politics.
They’re going to go into industry, they’re going to go into academia, they’re
going to float into all kinds of areas and choose not to go into politics and
work toward reality-based solutions.
RF: Looking ahead to
next year’s agenda, assuming an agreement is reached to keep the country from
going off the fiscal cliff, what do you think is the biggest domestic issue that
Congress and the President need to address?
JH: Well, so long as tax reform is somehow swept into this overall
economic package that people are working on, I really do think that in the end
-- whether it’s by the end of the year or early first quarter of the year --
it’s probably going to be kind of a Simpson-Bowles look-a-like outcome.
So, like the election -- where we spent $2 billion and kind of had a status-quo
outcome -- we’re probably going to have a financial outcome that looks very much
like what the Simpson-Bowles Commission put on the table over a year ago, and
what we probably should have grabbed onto well in advance of where we are
But the point of even bringing it up is to say that tax reform needs to be a part of the overall outcome, and steps toward
entitlement reform must be a part of it as well. You don’t have to have a
final solution, but you do have to have a framework that begins moving this
Nation and our Nation’s representative body inexorably toward longer-term
benchmarks that begin to take cost out of the system and put us on a track that
is sustainable financially.
A financial outcome just for the sake of a financial outcome – you know, you tweak revenues here, you cut a little bit there –
without fundamentally leaving us better on tax policy would be an incomplete
outcome, and same on entitlements. But I’m assuming that those two will at
least be addressed in some way, shape or form.
Then I think you’re left with two big ticket items for the remainder of
the fiscal year that I think have to be done and would be great for the country
if in fact we could pull it off. I say by the end of the fiscal year
because the President will have limited public good will and political capital
with which to jump behind some of these things in working with Congress.
Immigration reform would be one of them. I think we need to speak of immigration reform as an indispensable economic driver
for the United States -- a way to replenish our brainpower, a way to infuse new
vitality and energy into our Nation, which has always been our secret sauce from
the very beginning and remains today the envy of the world. We talk about
immigration in ways that frighten people and that speak to fences and
surveillance systems and rejecting people. I’m not saying security should
not be a part of immigration -- indeed, it should be a part of the immigration
conversation. But we also have to recognize that we need a pathway.
You have to recognize reality – remember, we talked about reality-based
solutions early on. There are 12
million people in the United States, or so we think, and you have to deal with
that. You can’t just find buses and send them home or engage in some
policy of self-deportation. It might sound great during a primary
discussion, but it is not connected to reality-based solutions.
I think we need to speak of immigration reform as an indispensable economic driver for the United States -- a
way to replenish our brainpower, a way to infuse new vitality and energy into
But the broader thing for immigration really does need to speak to infusing our economy and our lifeblood with brainpower and
talent from the outside world -- people yearning to become a part of the
American dream and experience, which we have always benefited from. The
more we forgo any kind of immigration reform and talk about it in the terms that
we have used over the last ten years or so, the more it scares people away and
the more the American dream is diluted into something that isn’t reflective of
what I think our founding fathers intended it to be.
The second big ticket item would be energy legislation that would frame steps that this Nation needs to take to truly take
advantage of a natural gas revolution -- which, I believe, is going to be the
bridge that will take this country from where we sit today into the future,
whether it’s 20, 30, 40, 50 years, where science and economics will allow us to
draw more from the wind and the sun. You know, eventually, that’s where
science will go. We’re not there yet, obviously -- it doesn’t pencil out
economically, and there’s still a lot more in the way of technology development
that must be a part of that. So we need to build a bridge from today into
We’ve come to find we have more natural gas, more shale than we ever thought this nation had.
With horizontal drilling and with fracking, we have the ability now to
fuel our economic recovery in ways that I don’t think we’ve even begun to
contemplate in terms of what it will do to get us back on our feet, what it will
do in terms of economic competitiveness, and what it might do in terms of
creating a whole new generation of jobs and industries around energy
self-sufficiency, energy exports, energy feed stocks for power, for
manufacturing, and even for transportation. It’s a major deal. Every time I sit down and talk
to the experts about it, as I did over the last couple of days out on the West
Coast, it’s a game-changer. And we
need legislation that doesn’t hinder, but rather facilitates our being able to
capture the possibilities that lie in a new energy future.
With horizontal drilling and with fracking, we have the ability now to fuel our economic recovery in ways
that I don’t think we’ve even begun to contemplate…
What about internationally? What is the one trouble spot that, if you were
President, would keep you up at night?
JH: Iran clearly is a problematic feature of the international scene.
I say that because there’s a certain confusion associated with their weaponization
program, and that will have to be addressed at some point. So we’ll have
to keep our eye on the ball and make sure that we have a collective range of
options that we can pursue – from sanctions right on through to a military
option, as well.
But beyond that shorter-term concern is the longer-term reality that our foreign policy really does need to flow out of our
strength here at home. I would argue that you don’t have much of a foreign
policy or national security policy if you’re weak at home. And with our
fundamentals that are in need of a fix -- shoring up in other words whether it’s
our economic performance, whether it’s schools, whether it’s basic
infrastructure that allows us to be competitive as a Nation – all of these
things need to be a part of what I consider an effort to rebuild our
fundamentals in this Nation. Because that, in turn, will allow us to pursue a
stronger foreign policy and national security policy.
But it is also, I think, consistent with my view that the most important thing we do internationally won’t be in the Middle East.
And it’s not Iraq and it’s not Afghanistan. But it’s very much based on
how well prepared we are as people in this country to meet the competitive
challenges of the 21st century,
which in large measure will be economic policy and education policy -- in other
words, preparing the next generation for their moment on the world stage.
And that will play out over the Pacific Ocean for the most part, where
two-thirds of our trade will reside and where the rising militaries are.
The sooner we come around and deal with that reality, the better off we’re going
to be. We’re saddled with problems in the Middle East. We have a carryover from our war in
Iraq. We’re beginning to have a carryover from our war in Afghanistan –
which, in my mind, should have been phased out a long time ago. We met our objectives earlier on and
we should have recognized that and moved on.
So the sooner that we begin to rebalance our strategic mindset toward the longer-term, which is not the Middle East but is rather
our nation’s economic competiveness, the better off we’re going to be in terms
of preparing and then passing down this legacy to the next generation.
RF: Could you talk about China for a
moment. You are obviously very familiar with that country. What are
the main challenges and opportunities facing the U.S. in this regard at this
point in time?
Well, the biggest challenge of all is dealing with the natural attitudes that
will flow out of the American people when, for the first time in recent memory,
we’re seeing an emerging power that’s beginning to bump up into an existing
power, which is the United States. We have been the only power in the world for
some time. And to have one kind of
bumping up against us creates a fear factor as we talk about China, as opposed
to an opportunity factor, which, I think longer term, is clearly in our
As we look to China, we have to be very realistic about the stresses and strains that their rise will put on our country. And we have to be very judicious in
terms of the priorities that we then choose to make part of the overall
U.S.-China relationship. You can’t
do them all – you have to pick them carefully.
In my mind, the future years are very much going to be dependent on how
well we’re able to structure a security dialogue that really does take to
military-to-military interaction. We
don’t have to train together – I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point. But we do have to talk, and we do
have to seek greater transparency in terms of their overall strategic
priorities. And we need to do
everything possible to keep the sea-lanes open for the free flow of trade and
commerce in the Asian-Pacific region, because that’s jobs here at home. If we fail to do that, and if our
relationship results in a confrontation that chokes those sea-lanes, then
economically we suffer enormously.
So a security dialogue has got to lead everything else.
As we look to China, we have to be very realistic about the stresses and strains that their rise will put on
Secondly, the economic side of the relationship really does need to focus on helping to bring to the forefront a new generation of
Chinese entrepreneurs. They’re
there, they’re good at what they do, and they’re reform minded. So when you ask, “How are we going to
get to the bottom of intellectual property protection and market access and
begin to roll-back the bad practices of state-owned enterprises over the last 10
years?” -- well, that’s your answer.
And the more that we can interact through rule-of-law programs, expanding civil
society, interacting with entrepreneurs, getting governors and mayors more
involved and localizing the relationship so it isn’t just Washington and Beijing
talking about these concepts, then the better off the relationship is going to
So beginning to plant some of those seeds that would localize and humanize the U.S.-China relationship, and make it relevant in the
lives of people throughout this country, so they then see the need and want to
support a healthier long-term relationship -- because there’s no escaping it. We’re inexorably tied economically. We’re inexorably tied from a security
standpoint. We’re the two leading
nations in the world – we’re both on the world stage – and that’s not going to
change as we move through the 21st century. We’re married, and divorce isn’t an
option – you’ve just got to make it work.
To speak in sound bites and to just say that we’re going to punish them
for this or that really does miss the point.
It cheapens our conversations in ways that puts off the inevitable –
which is how are you going to make it work?
You can’t avoid that inevitable destination.
RF: You’re a former, ambassador,
governor and businessman with a rock-solid record of conservatism. Plus,
you ride a motorcycle and were once in a band. You fit the profile of a
modern-day presidential candidate. Looking back on the past year and a
half, why didn’t your campaign catch on?
JH: Well, first of all, we got a late start. Second of all, the lane
that we would otherwise occupy was encumbered, so you didn’t have as much of an
ability to raise money and to bring new people on board who were already taken
by years and years of work by others. And third, our strategy was very much
focused on New Hampshire, which, you know, was fine for that moment in our
journey, but we missed an opportunity I think in Iowa, and we missed an
opportunity perhaps in some of the follow-on states to really create an
infrastructure, again, which would have been facilitated by getting an earlier
start. And fourth, let’s just face
it – I was an imperfect messenger.
You know, you’re moving from probably the most compartmented job in government, being U.S. Ambassador to China -- where you
literally and figuratively speak in a different language, you’re working on
issues most Americans will never learn about, with all kinds of terrifically
talented public servants from the United States, you’re hunkered down day in and
day out – you go from that right onto the most open and transparent stage in the
world, which is the presidential primary stage.
It takes a bit of a transition, in terms of the way you talk about
issues, the way you present things.
They expect you to step out there and pander and eviscerate the President and
speak in ways that suggest there’s deep anger and hatred. And I’d say, well, I’m not a deeply
angry person. I’m a person in
pursuit of solutions. I did it as
governor, I did it as an envoy abroad, and I would do it as President.
RF: You announced from the outset that you were going to run your campaign that way --
JH: Anger is not a substitute for good policy. Yet it seems to play well among
certain corners of my party. And
it’s not where we should be. We
should turn that energy into finding reality-based solutions and bringing people
together in ways that really do further an agenda that I think most Americans
could agree on – and that is rebuilding some of our broken fundamentals in this
country, because everybody needs an economy that works, everybody needs good
schools for their families, everybody wants the kinds of confident, reliable
relationships abroad that allow America’s light to shine.
Anger is not a substitute for good policy. Yet it seems to play
well among certain corners of my party.
And it’s not where we should be.
Those values of liberty and democracy and human rights and free markets; we’re the country left in the world that really does move
history and changes people’s lives – if that light is used properly. I don’t run into a whole lot of
Americans – Republicans, Democrats, unaffiliated – who don’t agree that those are
the things we really need to focus on.
As a candidate, is it more important to listen to your consultants or listen to your
Your gut -- in all cases. I worked for Ronald Reagan, who didn’t have a lot of consultants around him.
He had some of his old friends from California. He went by his
instincts. He always went by his instincts. He spoke from his heart and
his soul. He took his concepts for a better America – whether that was
ending communism, whether that was a stronger economy, whether that was
preserving and enhancing freedom – it was a pretty simple worldview, but it was
focused and it was a direct extension of the man. That’s why he succeeded.
Because it wasn’t artificial, it wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t divorced from who
he was as a person and what he believed in. Those are the kinds of traits
– again, I don’t want to overuse Ronald Reagan.
I reflect on that because I worked for him and saw him in action up close
– and I learned some very important lessons from that style of leadership.
It’s a rare thing these days that you find an authenticity in our political
leaders, yet, that’s exactly what the American people are yearning for.
What’s your gut telling you about 2016 – are you going to run again?
JH: My gut is telling me you’ve got to clear out all the cobwebs in your head before you even think about
anything of that kind. But I will tell you this -- I’m committed to
serving my country. That’s been my
life from the very beginning. And I always want to do what is right for a
country that has been so very, very good to my family, and given so many
opportunities to countless others. And I guess as you approach that kind
of decision making you have to say first and foremost: ‘are you electable?’ And
that’s a real conservation you have to have. Number two, ‘are you hitting
the needs of your Nation at the right time historically?’ You don’t run just to
run. You run because you bring something to the table that might be unique and
So, given the few things that you might be good at, or have some background in, are they issues that
are timely and important for the country? And then third, it’s kind of
about your family, because they have to do it with you. And is your family
prepared to take that journey? I’ve got daughters who are pretty darn good
at it. The boys at the Naval Academy who are completely divorced from
politics -- thank goodness for that. And Mary Kaye, who is quite good at
what she does, too -- far better than I am. So, that’s a conversation that
at the right time, if we ever get there, will be a very important one. RF