Jon M. Huntsman Jr. may not have won the Republican presidential nomination, but he has some interesting observations on the primaries, the political process, and the current state of the Grand Old Party.
Running for President of the United States is, by all accounts, a daunting experience. Running for the Republican nomination in 2012 as a thoughtful, solutions-oriented candidate might best be characterized as Trial by Game Show.
By some reckonings, Jon M. Huntsman Jr. C’87 Hon’10 came across as the most reasoned and nuanced of the Republican candidates. Which, in the Alice in Wonderland universe that is the primary season, may be why he didn’t come close to winning.
“Too much in the way of well thought-out and developed policy papers, and not enough in the way of pandering,” he said drily in a recent phone interview. “Lesson learned.”
When he announced his candidacy in June 2011, the popular former governor of Utah offered detailed policy prescriptions and a worldview that sometimes bucked party trends. (The GOP should not become the “anti-science” party, he warned, and banks that are “too big to fail” are simply too big.) He declined to “run down” either his Republican rivals or President Obama, under whom he had served as US ambassador to China.
But the respect that his approach and worldview earned from more moderate quarters did not help him much in the actual primary elections. (Nor did his not-so-secret weapon: the high-spirited, sometimes-irreverent “Jon2012girls”—daughters Abby C’08, Liddy C’11, and Mary Anne—who provided support in the form of engaging interviews, videos, and tweeting. “We Nominate Jon Huntsman’s Daughters for President,” proclaimed a post on the always-irreverent Jezebel last November.)
Huntsman’s resume is both strong and somewhat singular. Not many candidates of either party dropped out of high school to tour with their rock bands, and not many Penn students have spent two years doing missionary work in Taiwan before arriving on campus (in his case, transferring from the University of Utah).
Unlike most students, who build an intellectual framework in college and then try to fit their subsequent experiences into it, he says, “I was out there wandering the back alleys of Taipei and Hualien as a teenager and hadn’t yet had the opportunity to develop any intellectual construct in which you can actually put the pieces of the world or a very complex region together. And that’s what Penn afforded me more than anything else.”
At Penn, as a married father of two, he majored in political science with a concentration in international politics, taking every class that the late professor Alvin Rubinstein Gr’54 had to offer. Huntsman, whose family later funded the Huntsman Program in International Relations, describes Rubinstein as “the ultimate practitioner, or at least philosopher, of realpolitik, which was an enormous influence on my own worldview.”
Huntsman got his start in politics as a staff assistant in the Reagan administration, then served as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for trade development and commerce for East Asian and Pacific affairs under President George H.W. Bush, who appointed him ambassador to Singapore in 1992. He later became a deputy US trade representative under President George W. Bush, and honed his business skills as an executive of the family business—the Huntsman Corporation, a global chemical company founded by his father, Jon M. Huntsman W’59 Hon’96.
In 2004, Huntsman ran for governor of Utah, and was elected with a convincing 58 percent of the vote; four years later he was re-elected in a landslide. By the time he stepped down in 2009 to serve as ambassador to China, his approval ratings were upwards of 80 percent, and the Pew Center on the States had named Utah the best-managed state in the country.
Since bowing out of the primaries in January, Huntsman has spent some time “decompressing,” and was planning to skip last month’s Republican convention in Tampa. But he has not been idle, serving on several “excellent corporate boards tied to American manufacturing” and joining a couple of think tanks, the most recent of which is the Brookings Institution. He has also been giving speeches around the world on subjects ranging from US-China relations to the state of politics in America. He plans to reassess the situation after the November elections.
Huntsman spoke by phone with Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes at the end of July.
How difficult is it to get a nuanced message out in the political and media climate today?
It’s almost impossible. As you can tell, I failed miserably at it. My own approach was to say, “I’m not going to pander; I’m not going to do the pledge stuff. I’m just going to tell it like it is.” And I try to describe the world based on what it is, based on my own experiences, either in business, or as a policymaker as governor, or as a practitioner of foreign policy as ambassador. And if people don’t like what I have to offer, I’ll gladly move along, but I’m not going to change the pitch or the tone or the content of my message.
Nobody in today’s world really wants to have issues rolled out in the context of solutions or problems to be resolved. Everything today is sort of pitched in hues of politics based on personal destruction and vilification of your opponent. And if you can’t find those kinds of messages to weave throughout your policy discussion, then a lot of folks, at least in the early primary phases of the campaign, just don’t have a lot of time for you.
How much does that primary fight hurt moderate candidates?
Well, call me naïve. I’ve been twice elected governor. I ran on getting things done, on putting forward solutions, solutions that were not always within the context of my own party, but rather were solutions that I thought were right for all of the people, or at least most of those I represented as governor. I’d lived overseas. And I thought I’d bring that same sort of approach to problem-solving and framing the issues that needed to be addressed to the run for the presidency—only to find that early, at least in the primary phase, you get a fraction of voters turning out in Iowa, in New Hampshire, but certainly South Carolina and Florida. And they want to be, in a sense, entertained. They want red-meat politics. They don’t want solutions. Don’t explain the world in terms of what it is and where you want to take the nation. We want the president vilified. We want the politics of personal destruction.
And I wasn’t going to fall for that. That’s not who I am, and it’s not what I care to be as a politician. So we took it basically as far as we could, with the lament, when it was all said and done, that we don’t have a system that allows for broad-based turnout early on. And we’re hampered by that because you don’t get the majority of voices that are able to weigh in at the earliest possible phases of politics. If you did, you’d have more of a moderate tone, more of a can-do, problem-solving attitude on display, as opposed to the shrill partisanship that tends to now dominate in those early primary states.
What were the highlights and lowlights of your own campaign?
There were so many in both categories. Just kind of a kneejerk reaction is some of the lowlights were the debates. They sort of developed a game show-like quality, with a 30-second buzzer. “Now, give us your worldview in 30 seconds, and please don’t elaborate beyond just the superficial.”
So here we are, a nation in need of direction and a real thought-out vision on economics and foreign policy. And we don’t give candidates for the highest office an opportunity in the early stages to really define who they are and where they want the country to go. And, moreover, you’ve got special-interest groups organizing the debates, which then ensures that the environment in which this discussion is held is going to be tilted in one particular direction or another.
So someone’s going to have to pay some serious attention to how debates are organized and managed in the future. I think the American public got something out of those debates, but it was merely the entertainment value of watching these crazy people on the stage pontificate, usually in sharp, partisan ways.
You’ve said that the Republican Party is not in a good place right now. How much is that the fault of political leaders, and how much the fault of the voters?
Well, we don’t have any political leaders right now, and that’s part of the problem. People will follow leaders, those who offer a vision and offer a pathway forward. I mean, I can name them throughout the last hundred years who have done exactly that. You can’t blame it on the proliferation of media outlets or the blogosphere or the different voices now that weigh in. Leadership is leadership. And we just don’t have it now in the Republican Party.
I would argue that the election of 2012 is no different than the election of 1912. That was very much a reform-based election, led by the voice of Theodore Roosevelt. He wasn’t successful. Ultimately he broke off and became independent. But it was about trust-busting. It was about restructuring our corporate environment so that you didn’t have wealth that was placed in so few hands. And ultimately Theodore Roosevelt succeeded in those years. It was toward the end of 1912 where he was still pushing for continued reform that his independent bid didn’t work out for him.
Here we are a hundred years later. The reform that we’re in need of is probably less on the economic side, at least on the regulatory side, as it was a hundred years ago, and a whole lot more on the political side. Fundamental political reform is needed: campaign-finance reform, term limits, closing the revolving door on members of Congress who kind of slide right on through to become lobbyists within 24 hours. Things like this I think fundamentally need to be addressed and changed if we’re going to be able to re-infuse any trust into the system.
I think that’s a big part of the whole leadership conundrum we face right now. It’s really hard for a leader to break through when there’s so little trust in politics and so little trust by the voting population in our institutions of power or elected officials. They tend to be seriously diminished as soon as they break through. And that’s kind of where we find ourselves.
But the political stage is devoid of leadership, not only here but indeed throughout the world. I’ve just spent the last month over in Asia visiting half a dozen leading countries over there. And it seems that everywhere you look, the one common theme is we’re a world that, A) is terribly insecure in every corner; and, B) and perhaps related, a world devoid of any real leadership.
You were quoted as saying that the GOP would be best served by a third-party movement. Do you see that happening at any point soon?
I think that’s inevitable. I know some took it as being kind of a slam at the GOP. It was actually meant to be helpful in the sense that duopolies don’t last forever, in politics and in the corporate world. If they’re going to last beyond sort of a set or defined timeframe, competition is going to basically be what is needed in order for them to broaden and expand their message. And if the Republican Party’s going to succeed longer-term, it’s going to have to be hit by some element of competition from the outside that forces it to round out its message in more of a big-picture way, in more of a confident, optimistic way, an approach basically that speaks to solutions and problem-solving as opposed to talking points and pandering.
So the Republican Party of old, like it was at the very beginning under Abraham Lincoln, where he spoke of the importance of individual dignity and the worth of the individual; or Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke of the importance of our land and the environment. Conservation was a Republican ideal back in those days. Or General Eisenhower, who was responsible for rounding out and expanding our nation’s infrastructure. I mean, you can’t even talk about infrastructure today in a Republican gathering without getting laughed out of the room.
Why is that? What’s going on there?
Because there’s an instinctive connection with big government programs. And big government programs are anathema in today’s Republican Party. There’s a role for government. It has to be defined. And whatever government does, it must do well. And the Republican Party still has not yet been able to really define what that proper role of government is. In some corners, it’s no government. In other corners perhaps it’s too much government. But we’ve got to get around to carefully defining what is the proper role of government in society and making sure that, whatever government does, it does well. We haven’t arrived at that point in time yet.
Some of the things you’ve mentioned, such as infrastructure, sound not unlike what Ed Rendell is saying. And yet, as you say, that’s not going to work in the current climate of the Republican Party. Is there any room for a serious, maybe even bipartisan, think-tank of people like you?
I think you’ve hit on something. And I’ve been approached by more than a few sane voices about the idea of putting together a think-tank, not individually, but maybe in concert with several other people, to look at the politics of the possible—solutions, in other words. Coming up with an agenda for the 21st century that really does speak to reality-based solutions that aren’t off in some ethereal political land, but basically are tied to our here-and-now, 21st-century reality that would be based on tax reform, on adequate spending levels, on the national-security infrastructure, including a Defense Department that everybody knows is going to have to be pared down at some point. You can’t just pare down Social Security and Medicare without touching defense. Everything’s got to be looked at. And infrastructure. You can’t compete in the 21st century without adequate infrastructure that allows you to get people around, to say nothing of goods and services.
So all of this really does need to be addressed in a way that speaks to solutions, devoid of politics. But that becomes very, very difficult in today’s hyper-charged political environment.
I kind of write it off to the cycles of political history that Theodore White used to talk about and write about a couple of generations ago, and that is that there’s a time and a place for all things; that these cycles are very, very real, and that they will play out and usher in something altogether new. And I suspect that, if you wait this cycle out, we’ll see an opening for something new.
You said that you believe in the science of, for example, global warming. Why is this an issue? Can’t religion and science coexist in the country?
I’m absolutely of that opinion. But again, my party, at least a lot of the early organizers, don’t subscribe to the idea that our policymaking should be based on science or some empirical connection to science. It’s common sense. And I always used it as governor as well, to drive everything that I did. If the scientific community weighs in on something that should be informing public policy, then we should stop and listen and be informed by people who have spent a lifetime training and researching in a particular subject area. And it will allow us to make better public policy around that. And I think climate change is one such area. It’s fallen victim to politics. Yet when I look at Congress, I don’t see a lot of physicists present. I don’t see any climate scientists. I don’t see people who’ve done a whole lot of research. But everybody’s got an opinion on it.
I say, come on, time out, folks. Let’s turn to those who actually do this for a living. Let them justify the science of climate change. If you let science do what science is supposed to do, they’re going to render a good judgment that’s peer reviewed and based on rigorous scrutiny, and we’re going to have good information on which to base public policy.
Ed Rendell | Arlen Specter | Jon M. Huntsman Jr.
Sept|Oct 2012 Contents
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Jon M. Huntsman Jr.