The Curious Case of Jon Huntsman

Jon Huntsman is the most curious of Republican presidential hopefuls. While every other candidate appeals to the conservative base, Huntsman is seeking to win over independents’ support. George Will has called him a Republican who appeals to those who don’t like Republicans. Peggy Noonan labeled him an enigma. Most Americans wonder: who is Jon Huntsman?

He introduced himself to most of the country last week when he announced his presidential bid at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park, the site where Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 candidacy.

Quickly he established his foreign policy credentials and reminded voters he’s the only Republican candidate with foreign policy experience: he was ambassador to Singapore during the George H.W. Bush administration, served as a deputyU.S.trade representative during the George W. Bush administration, and was the most recent American ambassador to China.

He is fluent in Mandarin, learning the language as a youngster while serving as a Mormon missionary toTaiwan. Many think he’s the country’s leading authority on China, the emerging Asian power and America’s most important bilateral partner.

But it’s his time as governor of Utah that makes him a presidential contender. He established his conservative bona fides during his tenure. He signed the biggest tax cut in Utah history into law, reducing the top rate from 7% to a flat 5% rate. He approved three anti-abortion measures. He got a school voucher proposal through the legislature, though it was later overturned on a referendum. He also endeared himself to the National Rifle Association, approving two pieces of legislation that weakened gun-control.

East Coast observers noted his success in Salt Lake City. The Pew Center described Huntsman’s Utah was the best managed state in the country. Forbes called Utah the best state for business. Many in Washington thought President Obama pulled a master stroke by putting Mr. Huntsman into his cabinet, believing he’d removed one of the leading 2012 conservative contenders.

Huntsman wasn’t an orthodox conservative during his gubernatorial stint: he took some controversial stands in one of the country’s reddest states. He came out in favor of civil unions for homosexuals, supported in-state tuition for illegal aliens, and thought cap and trade was necessary to address the environment and combat global warming. Despite these heterodox positions, he maintained strong approval ratings (regularly over 80%). He sailed to re-election in 2008, capturing 77% of the vote.

Many Republicans worry that he’s too moderate for the conservative base. They point to his contrarian views and highlight his service in the Obama administration. Huntsman has done nothing to mollify the situation: he decided to forgo the Iowa Caucus, claiming the social conservative base there was too narrow and consisted of angry zealots.

The candidate wants to make the GOP a Big Tent Party, reaching out to independents and Democrats disappointed with the president’s performance. He thinks the party should address three issues that it’s previously ignored: gays, the environment, and immigration. Huntsman fears the GOP risks becoming a permanent minority party if it refuses to address the concerns of these constituencies.

Political strategist Mike Murphy agrees. He points to the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections. George Bush won narrowly (in the electoral college/he lost the popular vote) in 2000 while John McCain lost decisively (by 7%) in 2008. Both men won 55% of the white male vote.

John Weaver, Huntsman’s top strategist,  concurs. He told Time Magazine the GOP faces a demographic “ticking time-bomb,” and the party must address the needs of young voters and Latinos, who don’t share the Republicans’ view on social issues. Naturally, he says Huntsman is the man to help the party reform and become more competitive in the 21st century.

Many Republicans in 2011 think Jon Huntsman’s the one out of touch.

Conservatives see Huntsman as a man who spent the Obama years abroad, and is not in-sync with the Tea Party agenda. How can a technocrat fix Washington, when many in the base feel that Washington is irrevocably broken?

The Tea Party has attacked President Obama directly since early 2009. CNBC anchor Rick Santelli launched the movement in February 2009 when he condemned the housing bail-out (the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan), said the government was rewarding bad-behavior,  called for a Chicago Tea Party, and asked: “Mr President, are you listening?.”

 Tea Parties broke out around the country on April 15th and the independent (though right-leaning) movement played a pivotal role in helping Republicans win back the House in 2010.

Donald Trump energized the Tea Party earlier this year, jumping to the top of the GOP presidential polls by challenging the president. Trump called Mr. Obama “the worst president in my lifetime,” demanded to see his birth certificate, and said Obama wasn’t Ivy League material.

Republican presidential hopefuls have piled onto the rhetorical attacks against the president. Michele Bachmann has called him “very anti-American,” Rick Santorum said the president: “has refused to…call evil, evil.”  Herman Cain, the only African-American in the GOP field, described Obama as “not a strong black man,” Tim Pawlenty said the president was a “chicken,” and Newt Gingrich, channeling Dinesh D’ Souza, claimed the president had a “Kenyan anti-colonial world-view.”

By contrast, Huntsman has refrained from personal attacks. He says he shares a different worldview than the president, but both are working to make the country a better place. Too many Republicans, in his estimation, have made personal attacks on the president, rather than laying out policy alternatives that will get the country back on track.

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review has noted the difference in tone between the former Utah governor and the rest of the GOP field. Other conservatives are more strident in their opposition to the president while Huntsman is calm and sensible in his. Ponnuru is right; the GOP base has been hijacked by the Angry Right.

Jon Hunstman is likely not the messenger to appeal to the GOP in 2012. But one hopes his demeanor prevails in the end. The GOP should argue against Mr. Obama’s policies, not make ad-hominem attacks against the man. Theirs should seek to renew America and restore its economic and entrepreneurial spirit, not polarize the country and viscerally attack its leader.

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