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A cruise with Jon Huntsman

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Michael Gerson
June 7, 2011
— A few hundred New Hampshire Republicans mingle loudly on a sunset dinner cruise, oblivious to the scheduled speakers and to the lovely, green landscape rolling by. The best discussions, as usual, are located near the bar, where veterans of primaries past are gossiping, complaining and thoroughly enjoying their disproportionate influence over American politics.

Mitt Romney, one overhears, didn't fill the audience for his town hall meeting. Herman Cain is getting a noisy buzz. Rudy Giuliani may run, if only to erase the memory of his last, disastrous campaign. Tim Pawlenty is the most sophisticated networker but has yet to catch fire.


A skulking columnist asks: What of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman? "Don't know much about him," says a longtime GOP activist, "but I hear he is a moderate." It is not intended as a compliment.


Huntsman, making his way smoothly around the deck, seems determined to convert everyone, handshake by handshake. His staff believes his comparative advantage is retail politics. Huntsman is beginning a two-day, 11-stop tour of New Hampshire's North Country, including two VFWs and Chutters candy shop. Scheduling must be a challenge; the region is populated by about 18 persons per square mile. When it comes to grass-roots politics, Huntsman is burrowing deep.


Compared to some other in the Republican field, Huntsman is barely registered in national polls. But activists in early primary states see a serious resume and considerable political skills. Some talk of his potential for 2016. A number of political heavy-hitters have signed on this time around. In a flat political market, Huntsman is considered a growth stock.


The media have often covered Huntsman as a liberal Republican -- a Rockefeller reincarnation. After all, he supports civil unions. He made it easier to get a drink at a bar in Utah. This easy press narrative gives Huntsman an odd advantage in a Republican primary: He is more conservative than his image. For many Republicans, he will improve upon closer inspection.


"At the beginning of a campaign," Huntsman tells me, "labels drive the debate. Once I'm better known -- my record as governor, my temperament -- this will shift." Recognizing the power of labels, however, he suggests a different one: "Maybe conservative problem-solver."


As governor of Utah, it is true that Huntsman pursued a moderate environmental agenda and did not go out of his way to offend immigrants. If these are disqualifying for a GOP presidential candidate, Republicans have no intention of winning. Huntsman is also strongly pro-life. His growth-oriented economic agenda as governor -- a flat tax, a reduction in the sales tax -- is a conservative model. And his business background appeals to important Republican constituencies.


Huntsman believes the presidential election will be a contest of economic visions. "As if it weren't apparent before, it will be jobs, jobs all the time. On the economy, there is not one alarm bell ringing but two or three alarm bells ringing." Americans will want a candidate, he says, who "gets the private sector, and it helps to have been there." The choice, in Huntsman's stark formulation, is "between a top-heavy statist model and returning to our capitalist roots."


As America's just-returned ambassador to China, Huntsman also brings foreign policy credentials to a Republican field lacking in them. But here he has raised questions of consistency. On the stump, he speaks movingly of visiting Chinese "freedom fighters" who were beaten and imprisoned for defending their rights. At the same time, he opposes the American operation in Libya, on the grounds that it is not "core to our national security interests." As president, would Huntsman really have allowed the leveling of Benghazi and the victory of Moammar Gaddafi?


Another foreign policy issue is more easily dismissed. Why did Huntsman agree to be President Obama's ambassador to China? Because he was not Obama's ambassador to China. He was America's ambassador to China. When a president calls with such a request, the proper, patriotic response is: "Yes, sir." It is never a scandal to serve one's country.


Huntsman may not be able to overcome the obstacle of his anonymity, at least this time around. But he contributes a thoughtful competence to the Republican field. While some seem to be running for a host position on Fox News, Huntsman appears to be running for president.


Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.



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