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Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Offers Advice for Republicans

by Carl Wicklander, published
Credit: Gage Skidmore

Amid the Republicans' electoral defeats of 2012, there have been many arm-chair prescriptions made for the party. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer recommended Republicans adopt amnesty while nominating Marco Rubio for president and nearly every word uttered by Senator-elect Ted Cruz of Texas is magnified as those of a potential presidential candidate even before he has taken office.

In a round of recent interviews, former US ambassador to China and former Utah governor, Jon Huntsman, offered advice and his own ideas for re-engineering the Republican Party which diverge from the current narrative that the GOP only needs to appeal to Hispanics or that the party lost because it was not conservative enough.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Huntsman described neoconservatives and the corresponding point-of-view that governed much of the George W. Bush administration as needing sidelining:

"We used to be the party that put out wars: Eisenhower, Korea; Nixon, Vietnam; Reagan, the Cold War. And here we talk about starting wars. That's all Republicans on the defense side seem to want to talk about - not negotiating a way forward diplomatically, as we had under earlier Republican administrations, but always falling back on the war option as if we haven't had enough over the past 12 years."

Unfortunately for Huntsman, who was one of the few Republicans to regularly advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan, he also joined the Republican consensus in "leaving all options on the table" regarding Iran. Some people may choose to believe that "all options" include a ground invasion of Iran to halt its nuclear program while giving voters a reason to label the Republican Party as the "War Party."

Perhaps also sensing the appeal Gary Johnson had as the Libertarian Party's nominee, Huntsman summed up his prescription as staying away from "fringe issues" and:

"'Balance the budgets and get out of people's lives.' And you ought to build the party around that because we have strong libertarian roots that go way back to the early days of the Republican Party."

What Huntsman means by "libertarian roots" is vague, yet it is still outside the conventional wisdom within the GOP that the party either has to liberalize on issues like immigration or double down on its current agenda. Huntsman also took the states' rights position on gay marriage saying, "States ought to be entitled to do whatever they want."

What makes Huntsman's ideas unique is that they are coming from a source many Republicans ought to be willing to accept. If Eugene Robinson or Paul Krugman make suggestions about what the GOP should do, they are not taken seriously, because as long-time supporters of Democrats, they are not necessarily interested in a genuinely re-bolstered GOP that will be more competitive with Democrats. Huntsman, despite his stance as a moderate during the presidential primary campaign, was actually a conservative governor of Utah.

In a 2011 profile of Huntsman, it was reported that his approval rating was as high as 90% in a state where he cut $400 million in taxes and earned Utah top-in-the-nation honors from the libertarian Cato Institute on tax policy, and Huntsman signed a "trigger law" that would ban abortion outright in Utah if Roe v. Wade was overturned. While perceived as a moderate during his presidential campaign, not even getting invited to all of the debates, Huntsman's record is one that on most issues would placate conservatives.

Huntsman's prescriptions may or may not be taken by the party. Many Republicans were wary of trusting the former ambassador to China because he was nominated by President Obama, but Huntsman offers a different critique of foreign policy, including on potential US Secretary of State nominee Susan Rice, whom Huntsman says Republicans have overreacted in their criticism.

However, Huntsman did not help himself when, during his campaign, he joined with practically the entire Republican field in beating the drums for war on Iran. After eight years of Bush and four more as the "Party of No," the Republicans, even those with worthwhile contributions, are still stuck with considerable baggage.

Jon Huntsman and his ideas may or may not be the magical elixir to the Republicans' problems, but at a time when Republicans are debating their future, he is making the case that his voice should be heard.

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