Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman may be the fastest-rising Republican star you have never heard of. Reelected to a second term in 2008, Huntsman served as ambassador to Singapore during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and currently chairs the Western Governors Association.
POLITICO met with Huntsman at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, where he discussed the process of economic recovery and stressed the need for his party to catch up with the younger generation on issues ranging from the environment and gay rights. Here are some excerpts of the conversation.
Q: What is your take on the stimulus? Will you take all the money?
A: It's easy to criticize the bill and if you don't like it, you don't have to take the money. It's pretty simple.
I guess in hindsight we can all say that there were some fundamental flaws with it. It probably wasn't large enough and, number two, there probably wasn't enough stimulus effect. For example, a payroll tax exemption or maybe even a cut in the corporate tax for small and medium-sized businesses for three years, for example.
We will take the money.
Q: How long before you see the stimulus money kick in?
A: I'm not sure it's the stimulus money that will necessarily allow the economy to recover It will help to fortify our budgets, frankly, to ensure that there isn't as much backsliding in the areas of education and healthcare, for example. But economic recovery must be earned. And it will be earned by entrepreneurs and it will be earned by small businesses.
Q: You said the stimulus wasn't large enough. In addition to the tax cuts that you mentioned, are there other measures you would have liked to see included in the bill?
A: Well, the size of about a trillion dollars was floated by Mark Zandi, who's a very respected economist. I tend to believe what he is saying about the size of the package, which didn't necessarily hit the mark in terms of size.
Q: How realistic is President Obama's expected pledge to cut the deficit in half?
A: You can slice it any number of ways. The question becomes, how deleterious are these budget-balancing measures to our long-term competitiveness? And I think we have to be very sensitive to our need to compete, moving forward, and a lot of that is tied to tax policy.
At the end of the day, capital is a coward. It's going to flee from wherever it perceives risk to be present in the marketplace In a day and age of global competition and instantaneous financial flows, you have to be highly sensitive to the way in which tax policy impacts your overall competitiveness as a country. That's the only flag of caution I think we ought to be waving at this point.
Q: What do you make of the rhetoric coming out of the Democratic Party or the Obama administration on fair trade and "Buy American" laws?
A: That's shades of Smoot-Hawley, 1931 When America closes its doors, so does everybody else. We are the primary engine of growth in the world and we are the only beacon of free trade left, and open markets.
Q: At the Republican Governors Association meeting in December you had some pretty sharp critiques of your own party. How is your party doing now and how would you rate the performance of congressional Republicans?
A: You know, it may come as a shock and a surprise, but I don't pay any attention to what's coming out of Congress. I couldn't even tell you what these guys are saying, because it matters so little in our home state and in the region that I represent.
We are tasked with balancing our own budgets and fixing healthcare, "cause nobody else is. These guys aren't doing a thing for us. And so what do we do? We have to do it ourselves.
Q: Are you saying that congressional Republicans are irrelevant?
A: Well, I'm saying, to a lot of states like ours, there isn't much guidance coming out of Congress that necessarily impacts anything we do. But I'll tell you this about the overall debate: we will be irrelevant as a party until we become the party of solutions and until we become the party of preeminence.
Q: Is it a party of "no" right now?
A: I'm not sure that it can be defined in any way in particular, because there's nothing there with which to define it. And it won't be defined until it breaks through with some real, practical solutions. "No" isn't a solution.
Q: Who do you think are the leaders of the party right now?
A: It's a jump ball. I really do think every Republican governor who is doing something in his or her state in creating real, workable models on any of the issues that we talked about, they are the leaders because they're doing something.
Q: You've changed your position on gay rights. What prompted that?
A: Well, I've always been in favor of greater equality. My first year in office I ran a reciprocal beneficiary rights piece of legislation. It failed, but my first year in office I wanted to see if we could do more in the name of individual rights. And I've always thought that we were a little bit behind in terms of equality for people born under the same constitution.
Q: In December you talked about people 40 and under having a very different view on the environment. Is there a similar generational gap on gay rights?
A: You hit on the two issues that I think carry more of a generational component than anything else. And I would liken it a bit to the transformation of the Tory Party in the UK They went two or three election cycles without recognizing the issues that the younger citizens in the UK really felt strongly about. They were a very narrow party of angry people. And they started branching out through, maybe, taking a second look at the issues of the day, much like we're going to have to do for the Republican Party, to reconnect with the youth, to reconnect with people of color, to reconnect with different geographies that we have lost.
How do you win back the intelligentsia? How do you win back some of the editorial boards of major newspapers that Richard Nixon used to carry?
Q: Why do you think winning back the intelligentsia matters?
A: I think we've drifted a little bit from intellectual honesty in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, for example, where they would use rigorous science to back up many of their policies, and in this case many of their environmental policies. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. We declared the war on cancer.
A lot of intellectual rigor went into the policies of those days, and we've drifted a little bit from taking seriously the importance of science to buttress much of what we're doing today.
Q: It sounds like what you're saying is that Republicans need to win the educated class of America.
A: Absolutely. The country, I do believe, is a centrist-right country, for the most part, when you look closely at the demographics I'm not sure that we have connected fully, meaningfully and in any complete way on the issues of the day.
Q: How would you rate President Obama's first month in office?
A: Well, if the market is any indication, troubling. And the market is a pretty good barometer of confidence in our direction -- and I am referring to the broader measure of the marketplace than the Dow Industrial Index, but you can look at the techs and you can look at the valuation of the dollar and any other index that comes to mind. They're all down.
The transition, you have to give him very high marks for. I've been involved in transitions before. I was absolutely impressed with the way he handled this transition.
Q: Are we going to see you in Iowa and New Hampshire next year, do you think?
A: If there are some good motocross races.
Q: Has a presidential campaign crossed your mind?
A: You know, it's hard to speak in those terms today, because we just had an election.
Politics is a lot of serendipity You're in the right place and the right time and you've got the right message, and it either connects for you or, or it doesn't. And I think whoever emerges as the standard-bearer for the Republican cause in four or eight years will have to first prove that they can be a person who delivers results in the incubator or laboratory of democracy, as opposed to someone engaging in gratuitous rhetoric.
Q: Is there a place in a Republican primary who has views on gay rights, immigration, the environment, foreign policy, that are not exactly orthodox conservative?
A: Well, that will all be determined in the next few years, because it won't just be me, it will be a whole lot of people who will probably want to expand the horizons so that we include more people into our party. There's no other way to get it done.
And, you know, so long as we always believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and so long as we can hold firmly to the principles that keep entrepreneurs viable -- because, in the end, that's the one thing, other than our constitutional freedoms, that really make us a unique country.