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Jon Huntsman, the No-Drama Conservative

The former Utah governor speaks like a diplomat, but he's no moderate.

The former Utah governor speaks like a diplomat, but he’s no moderate.

HANOVER, NH—Jon Huntsman walked out of the rear door of a Dartmouth auditorium. His head swiveled as he looked for the black SUV that will take him to his next stop. He had just given a speech emphasizing his claim that the future of America will not be decided on a battlefield in remotest Afghanistan but along the trade routes of the Pacific. The applause had barely died down in the hall as Huntsman exited into the quiet streets of Hanover. He took one second to sigh. He had just launched “Phase Two” of his campaign, and it was a success.

The reboot couldn’t come fast enough. Huntsman had made no dent in the polls since his launch in June. Instead, the avalanche of prestige media mash-notes to his campaign had the effect of raising expectations ridiculously high and smothering him with the labels “soft” and “moderate” in an era when Tea-caffeinated primary voters are looking for “hard” and “right.” The hastily constructed campaign—largely built while the candidate was still serving as Obama’s ambassador to China—was subject to infighting and leaked acrimony that would outlast July’s reorganization. Huntsman was sinking almost as fast as Tim Pawlenty, his name recognition barely above Buddy Roemer’s.

But this rickety launch obscured more than it revealed. Huntsman may be uncomfortable in the ideological sweathouse that is the conservative movement. He may be diplomatic when the right is dyspeptic. But his candidacy offers conservatives two very tantalizing possibilities: a break with the Bush legacy on foreign policy and the chance to move their policy prescriptions off the Tea Party’s placards and into the center of our political debate. Huntsman’s record shows that conservative politics can triumph not just through conflict but also by concord.

But for now he has to win by making contrasts. At Dartmouth he had two objectives: define his mission and define his opponents, all while maintaining his genial image. “I’m driven to run for president… because I can’t stand the thought that we’re about ready to hand down the greatest nation that ever was to your generation less good, less competitive, saddled with debt, less hopeful than the country I got,” he said to the crowd. Mission one accomplished.

As he was just catching his breath outside the auditorium, one local reporter lucky enough to find the right exit invited him to try the second part. “How do you distinguish yourself from Mitt Romney?” she asked. Huntsman had a fact prepared for this question, but like a good diplomat, he tried to soften the blow by padding it with verbiage. “Just take a look at the records that we have as governor and that should say everything,” he said. “I’m running on my record—a lot of people run from their record. We’re talking about our economic records, which are very clear—number one job creation in the state in America versus number 47. All of this when the most important issue around 2012 is going to be creating jobs and expanding our economic viability.”

This answer, delivered with wry smile and aw-shucks tone, generated a dozen screeching headlines. Huntsman Slams Romney; Huntsman Unveils Aggressive Campaign; Gloves Come Off!

“It’s amazing,” Huntsman tells me about the dust storm he kicked up. “It wasn’t even a sentence. It was a clause, I think.” He looks over to his spokesman, Tim Miller, and they laugh about it. But he’s already repeating to me the same damning fact. “We were number one in job creation, Massachusetts was 47.” He is perfectly confident that this mean fact will get out there again. But his smile takes the edge off his delivery. If a reporter happens to transmit it, that’s on the reporter. “You don’t need to skewer somebody,” he says after flaying Mitt Romney with that point one more time. “Civility can co-exist with the facts.”

Growing Up Huntsman

The facts about Jon Huntsman Jr. are as follows: he is the scion of one of the most successful Mormon entrepreneurs in the nation. With the exception of Bill Clinton, he has worked for every presidential administration since he was old enough to drink. Between bouts of public service he helped helm his father’s company. He was the most popular governor in Utah’s history. And he was Obama’s choice to be Ambassador to China. Yet with a resume this long and this public, he remains unknown.

Jon, 51, is the first son of Jon Huntsman Sr. and wife Karen. The Huntsmans, like the Romneys, are descendants of early LDS Church leader, Parley P. Pratt. When Jon was born, the Huntmans were an upper middle-class family. Huntsman Sr. was vice president of operations at Olson Brothers, Inc., an egg producer in California. He developed the first plastic container for eggs there. When Jon was ten, the senior Huntsman formed his own company, Huntsman Container Corporation, and joined the Nixon administration’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He returned to his business in 1972 and developed the “clamshell” container that would house Big Macs and make him a fortune. He then sold his company and formed another, Huntsman Chemical—a multibillion-dollar giant.

Huntsman Sr. is well known for his philanthropy in Utah, donating hundreds of millions to universities and other projects. He was once as high as 47 on Forbes’s list of richest people, though he has said his intention is to “die broke” from his philanthropy, giving the last of his wealth to the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Huntsman Jr. had a rebellious phase. He dropped out of high school to focus on his progressive-rock band, Wizard. Ask him about those days and he slips into semi-seriousness. He describes Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Genesis as “highly impactful in terms of [his] view of the music world.” And he jokes that the ’80s were a mostly “lost decade” in terms of music when explaining his fondness for ’90s acts like the Foo Fighters and Ben Folds Five.

He eventually completed his GED and went to University of Utah; he also went on a two-year mission on behalf of the LDS church. Assigned to Taiwan, he quickly set to learning Standard Chinese Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkein. These years proved pivotal. He not only acquired the skills that would allow him to expand his father’s business in Asia, he also found himself an unofficial diplomat.

“It was not just the effort to learn the language, the effort to learn the new highly structured system,” he recalls, “I learned a lot about Asia, and I learned a lot about the United States.” Huntsman arrived in Taiwan in the years following the Shanghai Communique, during which U.S. relations with mainland China began to normalize, a development that angered the Taiwanese.

“You arrive in a place where there is hostility toward Americans,” Huntsman says, “and they were very outspoken in terms of their hostility. You go into somebody’s little home and they want to talk about the U.S. turning its back on an ally, on a friend. Of course, it piqued my interest. I’d never been in a position before in my life where you hear so much about your country in a critical sense.”

That Huntsman talks about a missionary trip in the terms of his later diplomatic life, rather than religion, is not unexpected. More devout LDS members have referred to him as a “Jack Mormon,” a designation equivalent to “cultural Catholic.” He has described himself as “spiritual” and “proud of his Mormon roots,” but he also told Time, “I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.” Huntsman neither wants to define himself as a “Mormon candidate” nor give Huntsman the appearance of antagonizing the LDS Church. In fact, he has retained subtle LDS allusions in his campaign material. His announcement video described him as “married forever,” and spoke glowingly of Utah’s pioneer history, where settlers “made the desert bloom.”

During the 1980s, Huntsman worked for his father’s company as it expanded into Taipei, but he kept adding lines to his public-service resume. He took a position as a staff assistant in the Reagan White House. Under George H.W. Bush he was deputy assistant secretary of commerce for trade and ambassador to Singapore. At 32, he was the youngest American to serve as an ambassador in over a century. He briefly served as U.S. trade representative under George W. Bush as well.

Utah’s Mr. Moderate?

In Utah a few names stand out: J. Willard Marriott, founder of the hotel chain; Nolan Archibald, who helmed Black and Decker tool company; and Jon Huntsman Sr. His father’s name helped give Jon Jr. an edge in the crowded field of the 2004 Utah gubernatorial primary—he captured nearly two-thirds of the Republican primary vote before handily dispatching his Democratic opponent with nearly 58 percent in the general election. Utah’s political class was very familiar with Huntsman Sr., a traditionally conservative figure who is close with Glenn Beck, but acceptance of Jon Jr. was not automatic.

“I’m not a guy who likes [someone] born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” says Greg Hughes, majority whip in Utah’s House of Representatives and perhaps the most stoutly conservative member of the state’s overwhelmingly right-leaning legislature. It was a common attitude when Huntsman took office as governor. “Here is a guy who has been living out of state, his family is super-wealthy, and he comes like a prince,” says Jeff Hartley, who was chair of the state GOP.

But Huntsman may have benefited from becoming governor without having in-state political baggage. In a typical Utah political career, “friends come and go and enemies accumulate,” says Hughes. Governor Huntsman allowed local officials to set their own policies, even when he wasn’t sure about them, and worked to impose his statewide agenda by diligently building consensus. “He worked well with our speaker and senate president and gave them a lot of autonomy,” recalls Hughes, “There are some things he got me to bend on that I joked later it was like a Jedi-mind trick.”

“I think it was through actual legislative victories that members of the legislature looked at us and thought, he is actually getting stuff done,” Huntsman says. His approval ratings got as high as 90 percent at several points during his years as governor. Initial reservations about him melted, and his legislation began passing with massive majorities. His gigantic tax-reform package sailed through both houses of the legislature unanimously.

“I have an easy rule of thumb,” says Hughes summing up his feelings on Huntsman. “If someone walks into the room and you cut $400 million in taxes and do school reform with him, you vote for him for president.” He turns fiercely protective of Huntsman’s credentials whenever a conservative outside Utah uses the word “moderate” to describe him.

“There’s a style he has that gets misinterpreted, and that’s a diplomatic style,” says Hughes, “he has reached out to all Utahns, and some people have mistaken his diplomatic approach for being a moderate. If you get to know the guy, his rudder is in the water.” Hughes has a point. For the past two decades a “moderate” Republican was one who generally didn’t side with his party on three issues: taxes, guns and abortion. Huntsman’s record on those isn’t just to the right of other moderates, it is to the right of most conservatives.

Huntsman’s tax reforms included $110 million in income-tax cuts, and would mandate a state-wide flat income-tax rate. Sales and food taxes were slashed too. The deal included tax credits aimed at attracting new business development, including mining. Because the state had a surplus in his first years in office, he also granted teachers a small pay raise and one-time bonus as part of the deal, an increase in spending that the Club for Growth calls “unforgivable.”

But the tax-cut package was the largest in the state’s history. The Cato Institute ranked Utah top in the nation for tax policy after Huntsman’s reforms. After the cuts in 2007, Utah’s revenues had the biggest drop in the nation, but have recovered quickly between 2009 and 2011.

Huntsman may be the pro-life cause’s most accomplished executive. He signed bills banning second-trimester abortions, reclassifying third-trimester abortions as a third-degree felony, and requiring abortion providers to explain the pain unborn children can experience during abortion. He signed a trigger law that would ban abortion outright if Roe is overturned. He opposes embryonic stem-cell research. And by establishing a state legal fund to defend these laws, he showed willingness to uphold state prerogatives.

And Huntsman expanded the rights of Utah gun-owners, abolishing some concealed-carry restrictions and allowing for more transport of firearms on Utah’s roads. He even signed a bill that would grant small-game hunting licenses to children under 12. In Jon Huntsman’s America, once a child survives the first trimester, he’s well on the way to having a rifle in his small hands and extra money in his pockets. If this qualifies as moderate, why be conservative?

“The ‘moderate’ label will fade away as people get to know his record,” says Whit Ayres, a Huntsman campaign pollster, “There are a few instances here or there, like on civil unions where he strays from what’s thought to be conservative orthodoxy, but Republicans don’t select their presidential nominee by going down a list of litmus test issues and disqualifying people.”

Huntsman can’t check the whole list, it’s true. He has Barack Obama’s 2008 position on gay rights: he is for same-sex civil unions but not marriage. He has John McCain’s latest position on immigration: he supports comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens—conservatives call this amnesty—but he demands that the border be secured first. Yet the means to do that don’t excite him. He told a town-hall audience recently, “I mean, for me, as an American, the thought of a fence to some extent repulses me, because it is not consistent with … the image that we projected from the very beginning to the rest of the world.”

Huntsman also riled conservatives on some environmental issues. He has praised Nixon’s creation of the EPA. His party’s right wing castigated him for participating with other Western-state governors in a climate-change summit that yielded exactly nothing in terms of policy. But his record is not quite that of an out-and-out greenie. Nearly 70 percent of Utah’s land is owned by the federal government, and Huntsman’s administration routinely fought alongside business interests in his state against the Interior Department and environmental groups to develop Utah’s energy economy.

“There’s great friction inherently in the relationship” with the Interior Department, Huntsman says describing the difficulties that face Western governors: “as governor, you have to ensure that they don’t capture so much of your land that they render you completely uncompetitive.”

One of the odder accomplishments of Huntsman’s Utah administration was the reform of the state’s liquor laws. They may seem like a trifling thing to the other 49 states, but in Utah this is a hypersensitive issue. Jeff Hartley, a former executive director of the state’s GOP, called it “one of the biggest issues in the state in three decades.” The LDS Church, of which the vast majority of state residents are members, implicitly supported the restrictive laws. So did Utah’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Before the reform, restaurants and bars had to comply with an arcane series of regulations that labeled them “private clubs” and required customers to pay extra fees to become members. “It was an image problem for our state,” Huntsman says, “people thought we were closed for business because they couldn’t get a drink.

“Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy, there is no way that in 50 years people are going to change the liquor laws, because we have too many institutional biases against change of any kind’,” Huntsman recalls. The governor took dozens of meetings with business members and ecclesiastical authorities, hammering the message that this was a lost economic opportunity. Eventually he got even the most conservative stakeholders in Utah’s civil society to give on the issue, and the proposed changes even received the blessing of the LDS Church.

Huntsman has reason to think his record compares favorably with those of his rivals. Unlike Romney, Huntsman’s state healthcare reform achieved more insurance coverage for residents without resorting to an individual mandate. Huntsman has never argued that he was more pro-choice than Ted Kennedy, as Romney did in his 1994 Senate race. And while Rick Perry’s Texas has 38 percent of all new American jobs created during the anemic recovery, the unemployment rate in Lone Star State has actually gone up. Because so many of the new jobs are low-wage, Texas’s debt has actually doubled under Perry. Huntsman’s Utah attracted larger companies and higher-paying jobs that helped the state recover from the recession more quickly than almost any other. The suspected RINO Huntsman passed Utah’s largest ever tax cut. Perry, who is casting himself as the beau ideal of the right, voted for Texas’s largest ever tax hike in the 1980s when he was an elected Democrat.

World View

But where Huntsman really contrasts with his opponents is on foreign policy. In a field where some Republicans are chastising Obama for being weak, Huntsman hits his former boss for being reckless. “I look at Libya, there is no defined goal, no defined national security interest, no exit strategy and I say, ‘Why do we want to be involved?’” he told his Dartmouth audience in late July. Ayres says that Huntsman isn’t about withdrawing from the world stage but reorienting our policy: “Why do we have so many military bases in Japan, we’re half a century after World War II? Why so many in Germany? Does it make sense for America to remain in these places?” Huntsman believes that other candidates are kidding themselves if they think defense budgets should be off the table when discussing the nation’s overspending.

Huntsman is most anxious about changing the mission in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. In a recent speech he leveled with the crowd: “It’s time to recognize the reality of what we’re up against in Afghanistan. It isn’t a nation-building exercise, it’s counter-terror [that we need],” he said, “You don’t need 100,000 boots on the ground and the expenses that it carries. You need intelligence-gathering capability, a special-forces presence, and help training the Afghan-national troops.”

He can be blunt about the limits of American power. On a recent campaign stop he said flatly, “I’m here to tell you folks, we can’t do a damn thing about Pakistan. Only Pakistan can save Pakistan.”

Huntsman told the biannual conference of College Republicans in July that one of the four keys to the 2012 election was that “Republicans had to rethink foreign entanglements.” He describes himself as a realist and says the “number one priority” of American foreign policy needs to be “rebuilding our core at home.” By that he means growing our economy long term and creating a market where America can be a major industrial power again.

“I might sound like an isolationist, but I am not,” he told me, before punching back at his hawkish critics. “They haven’t been on the other side of the negotiating table with the Chinese,” he says coolly. “They clearly haven’t felt our diminished leverage in the international marketplace because of our weak core here at home. They clearly haven’t read the history about the end of empires where you have a diminution in values, you have a society that becomes bankrupt with debt, and overreaching abroad. It’s the same three or four things that have brought an end to any empire.”

Huntsman’s delivery in giving foreign policy answers is extremely fluid. That is, until he is asked to describe how he evaluated Bush’s Iraq War when it was launched and how he views it now. The flow of words stops in an embarrassed sigh.

“Listen, I don’t want to re-litigate the Iraq War,” he says, admitting that he wishes to simply get past this question. “I visited [Iraq] three times as governor, and I’m very, very proud of all our troops in the National Guard. I was their commander in chief. And to this day, all I can say is that I’m grateful for the role that they played and the sacrifices they made, including families who lost and made the ultimate sacrifice. I’ll say no more.”

For a man running as the candidate most competent and knowledgeable about foreign policy, this is a hell of a punt. It is also a diplomatic dodge because there is no honest assessment that could be accepted by voters. According to a spring Rasmussen poll, 51 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should not have intervened in Iraq. Only 55 percent of Republicans believe that America did the right thing by deciding to depose Saddam. The electorate simply has not settled on an explanation of America’s role in Iraq. “That is sort of yesterday’s issue,” says Ayres, explaining his boss’s reticence in addressing the Iraq invasion directly.

As for ongoing operations there, Huntsman says the primary goal of the United States is achieving “stability, ensuring the government functions, that when we leave it doesn’t balkanize into Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and secular factions,” but he admits, “that may happen longer-term anyway. I hope not.” Whatever he makes of the original rationale for the Iraq War, Huntsman does believe that the presence of 50,000 U.S. troops “makes it rather difficult for Iran to have a direct shot over to Syria.” It’s an irony. With America having knocked Saddam out, Huntsman concludes that, for now, we must now play the disruptive role he had played in the Shia crescent.

When Huntsman brings back the subject of China, he finds his ground quickly. Does the Chinese government—which unlike the Soviet Union has been able to combine central planning with explosive growth—represent an ideological rival to the United States? “No,” he says, “If you disaggregate their current system you’d be hard pressed to say there is a driving ideology besides growth and success.” China believes it has a model that works for China and may work for other emerging countries, he says, but not for us.

He also contends that social and economic trends in China are coming to an extremely delicate moment. 500 million Internet users are online there, inflation rises, and at the next Party Congress nearly 65 percent of its 200 leaders are turning over. “It’s potentially incendiary,” Huntsman says. His campaign people constantly stress the importance of getting American policy in China right. “In last century you wanted a president who really understood Europe and Soviet Union,” says Ayres, “Now we need someone who understands China, India, Asia.”

A Modest Campaign

Huntsman took his job as Obama’s ambassador to China less than a year after winning re-election in Utah with an eye-popping 78 percent of the vote. Rahm Emanuel believed that Obama had not only earned bipartisan street cred but had removed a potential rival with this appointment. Yet Huntsman only agreed to a two-year appointment, and he wasn’t shy about saying he might run for president.

John Weaver, the former McCain campaign guru, seemed already to have 2012 in mind when he told the Washington Post at the time of Huntsman’s appointment, “It’s a rare thing in Washington that someone puts their country’s interest before their own personal interests… things usually work out well for the person who does do that. He’s a young guy. And he’s a very good prescription for what ails our party.”

After Weaver saw Huntsman hinting that he had “one more run in his bones” to Newsweek, he began calling donors and contacts. He prepared a campaign-in-waiting in the months before Huntsman resigned his diplomatic post, bringing along video-maven Fred Davis—famous for turning Pelosi’s head into a terrifying dirigible in one 2010 ad—and a slew of McCain veterans. Many of the key staffers only met Huntsman in the days just before his launch.

Despite Huntsman’s inability to make headway in the polls during the first month of his campaign, Weaver knows how to work New Hampshire hard. The McCain campaign had been long buried in the 2008 cycle before Weaver resurrected it there. The first-in-the-nation primary will determine the fate of Huntsman’s entire campaign. Because he is skipping Iowa altogether, he has to slay or at least mortally wound Mitt Romney in the Granite State and then come out of South Carolina and Florida with the most delegates.

“There is no aura of inevitability. There’s an enormous sense of vulnerability,” says Ayres, “Romney is the weakest frontrunner in my lifetime.” Ayres believes Romney, by attempting what amounts to a general-election campaign this early, is trying to run out the clock. “Playing not to lose is a good way to lose,” he says. Romney has raised at least five times as much money, but Huntsman plans on mounting the largest paid-advertising campaign in New Hampshire’s history. He has also begun landing jabs about Romney’s healthcare record.

Presidential campaigns are generally exercises in positive-thinking blather in which the candidate plays Oprah and offers the country a free car. The tax bill just comes later. Huntsman’s campaign certainly puts forward the positive vibes. They show off his beautiful family. They talk about him adopting a girl from China and another from India. They highlight him talking about the possibilities for a “new industrial revolution.” His campaign is working to brand him as a “no drama” conservative. It will try to make civility co-exist with the facts.

But the challenge for Huntsman is whether the electorate can abide self-reflection and self-criticism. There is something deeper that undergirds Huntsman’s campaign rhetoric. It’s hinted at when he says that empires fall due to a “diminution in values at home,” or when he says he is running for president in part because his generation is about to hand over a country that is “less good” than the one they inherited. These are the words of a man who believes his country has grown decadent and soft. Without the rest of the stump speech to cushion them, they are startling to hear from a presidential candidate.

For Huntsman, the factionalism of our politics isn’t the sign of zealous conviction, but of insecurity. Promiscuous intervention abroad isn’t a sign of strength, but of national aimlessness and weakness. Perhaps the hard truth is that America’s deformed policies are a reflection of a deformed character.

Of course, the unspoken converse is that good leadership and good policy would have an invigorating effect on the national soul, and that is where Huntsman hopes to make his appeal. He couldn’t help but touch on these themes in his address to the College Republicans in Washington. “I don’t want you to become disillusioned,” he said, “I want you to believe in the system. Your generation is going to be part of the fix.”

After the remarks, I became the reporter skulking by the side door, looking for one more question to complete our earlier interviews, “What do you mean when you say America is ‘less good’?”

Huntsman had the sense not to make this indictment explicit. “We need to bind up the divisions in our nation, we need to heal our wounds. We’re split and divided right now. So when I say ‘less good’, it’s almost like saying we’re less charitable as Americans. It’s just a way of phrasing it,” he says, more shy about this question than any other.

In a quiet way, Huntsman is making a sharp contrast with Obama. The president tries constantly, even now, to set policies from above the fray. He promised to transcend the rifts in our nation. He could never deliver on this. Instead, Congress is mired in a low-grade civil war and the country is more broken and divided than when Obama took office. Huntsman’s goals are less lofty. He sets policy not from above the human pile but from across the same table. He promises not transcendence but consensus. This is a modest vision of politics that makes the words conservative and moderate seem fresh again—and compatible. Now it’s up to the professionals to sell that on a bumper sticker.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a TAC contributing editor.

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