Volume 46, No. 4, December 2012
“Anger is not a
substitute for good policy.”
A Q&A with Jon Huntsman
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 ball forward.
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 today.
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 our Nation…
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 the future.
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…
RF: 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?
JH: 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 interest.
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 our country.
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 be longer-term.
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.
RF: As a candidate, is it more important to listen to your consultants or listen to your gut?
JH: 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.
RF: 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 helpful.
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