Everything You Thought You Knew About Jon Huntsman Is Wrong

With Herman Cain’s campaign suffering serious headwinds in recent days, voters of the recalcitrant “not-Romney” bloc may soon begin to shift. And while no Republican presidential contenders are without their foibles, there is at least one candidate who has not received fair consideration from the conservative electorate or media.

Despite scuttlebutt to the contrary, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is not a Democrat in disguise, but was in fact a relatively ambitious conservative governor.  And if he is “moderate,” he is not appreciably more moderate than other leading candidates or party leaders. If one compares records honestly and looks at policy positions realistically, one will find that in many ways, Huntsman is more conservative than Mitt Romney -- who will likely receive the Republican nomination. A surreal juxtaposition to be sure.

As governor of Utah, Huntsman ushered in a boldly transformed tax system. He flattened the tax code, doing away with many, though not all, deductions and credits, and changing six-brackets of progressive income tax rates into one low 5% rate. (Compare with Rick Perry’s proposed 20% flat income tax and Herman Cain’s emblematic 9%.)  According to PoliFact.com, this new system reduced taxes approximately 30% for the wealthiest residents, and due to remaining tax deductions “the effective tax rate [was] about 3 percent for Utah taxpayers earning $70,000 a year in 2008 and 4 percent for a household with $100,000 in taxable income[.]” He also eliminated the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, a credit Reagan supported and which many Republicans today label “socialist.”

Also according to PolitiFact, which simply crunched Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, Utah was fourth in the nation for job creation during the period immediately preceding and including the 2008-2009 recession, right behind Texas, which was third in the nation.

This is just the beginning. One proposal in Washington that has seemingly become too radical for even many leading Republicans to fully sign on to is the “Ryan plan,” which would rein in unsustainable entitlements, most notably Medicare.  Newt Gingrich has criticized the Ryan plan, and has vacillated considerably on the proposal -- at best, he seems to think it’s too big, too soon, although at one point he said he would vote for it.  Romney supports a weaker version of the Ryan plan, which would not phase out Medicare, but keep it as an option, allowing private carriers to compete with it -- we might call it the “competitive option,” a Democratic euphemism for the “public option.” Michele Bachmann supports the Ryan plan, but also voiced reservations regarding potential changes to Medicare.  Huntsman, on the other hand, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal commending the Ryan plan, and has said he would vote for it. He has re-iterated, unequivocally, his support on multiple occasions. This puts Huntsman in the same camp as Herman Cain and, to some extent, Rick Perry, who wants states to be able to opt out of entitlements and believes they’re “Ponzi schemes." Mitt Romney later criticized this very accurate characterization of entitlements, saying Perry’s rhetoric was over the top and frightening.

Of course, one other noteworthy item on Huntsman’s resume is that he pursued free market-based health care reform in Utah. The system primarily involved a competitive private health care exchange, diversified consumer options, and electronic medical records. Gregg Girvan of the Heritage Foundation praised it as a “blueprint” for state health care reform. Furthermore, the state did not impose a health insurance mandate on private citizens, although early on, Huntsman seemed to have favored a mandate, as did former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have endorsed insurance mandates of some kind and seem to think that they’re necessary features of a workable health care reform model. On a related note, like most other candidates, Huntsman also said he would repeal Obamacare.

Huntsman has also been consistently pro-life, and has spoken very passionately on the issue. He signed numerous pro-life laws while governor, including making second trimester abortions illegal, enacting fetal pain awareness legislation, and instituting a trigger to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned. He also supports a “right to life” amendment to the Constitution. He has not signed the Susan B. Anthony List pledge (Romney and Cain have not either), but his record speaks for itself, and he has been praised by numerous pro-life groups.  Like Chris Christie, he believes in abortion exceptions for incest and rape.  But compared to other candidates?  With the views Mitt Romney has held in the past, it is almost unbelievable that he is pro-life in truth, but is in fact lying about his views.  Meanwhile, Herman Cain’s pro-life stance seems to be indefinable.

Other miscellanea: Huntsman has voiced support for a balanced budget amendment. He also has a strong pro-Second Amendment record, having lifted restrictions on firearms use in Utah during his governorship. He achieved stratospheric approval ratings, while the Pew Center voted Utah the best-managed state in the country in 2008.

All admirable qualities any conservative voter should be looking for.  So why is Huntsman perceived as a Democrat’s Republican?

First, Huntsman is widely presumed to support pro-illegal immigration policies. In the past, he supported giving in-state tuition to college-age illegal aliens and has said it’s unrealistic to deport between 12-15 million people here illegally.  In other words, in Huntsman’s view, if you would like to see this degree of deportation, we might say you “don’t have a heart.” But let’s be clear about where various candidates stand.  Many have tap-danced around the issue of amnesty and mass deportation, insisting, “we need to secure the border first, then we can deal with other problems,” but nonetheless noting the importance of being “compassionate and humane.”

Rick Perry has said and supported much more controversial things, but this is not unrelated to the fact that openness to some degree of amnesty is not a radically un-Republican position.  Reagan approved amnesty measures in 1986 and President George W. Bush also supported so-called amnesty policies.  Rick Perry not only supported state-subsidized tuition rates for some illegal students, but he also said he was “open to the Bush administration’s amnesty proposal” provided the issue was methodically vetted. In 2006, he said “neither amnesty nor mass deportation is the answer,” and specifically that the latter was “unrealistic and unenforceable.” In short, Perry, like other candidates, may not want to talk about the issue of amnesty now, but he certainly did talk about it before entering the 2012 presidential primary field when it was less taboo.

Another commonly cited gripe about Jon Huntsman is that he is a global warming Kool Aid-drinker.  Huntsman has made clear that he trusts what science determines on global warming. He signed the state of Utah up for the Western Climate Initiative along with Arizona, California, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and several Canadian provinces.  Mitt Romney, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich all have comparable views, or did at one time. Chris Christie believes climate change is real and that humans have a role in it. In his 2010 book, Romney wrote, “I believe that climate change is occurring.… I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor. I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to man and how much is attributable to factors out of our control.” (Sorry, Mitt, but you cannot erase all incriminating lines from all of your books.)

Rick Perry has said much the same. And whereas Huntsman tweeted his position on global warming, Newt Gingrich wrote an entire book devoted to environmentalism, which, although free market-centered, made clear that “[g]overnment, at all levels, should be a facilitator for entrepreneurial, private-sector innovations and the formation of private-public environmental partnerships, supporting and not suppressing the creativity of entrepreneurial environmentalists” [p.13, “Contract with the Earth”]. These Republicans are, in fact, no more than following the legacy of George W. Bush, who also deferred to scientific consensus on the seriousness of global warming and pursued stricter environmental policies during his tenure (some of which President Obama is trying to undo).

Yet another complaint about Huntsman is that he is “pro-gay."  On this, critics may have a point. Huntsman is not like Rick Santorum on the issue of gay marriage. He supports civil unions, which means he is like Chris Christie.  But as with Christie, it is unlikely that Huntsman’s position on the issue bothers many Republican voters, as polls show that a large plurality of Republicans, even very conservative ones, support civil unions.

And finally, a truly perplexing complaint against Huntsman is that he is a “left-wing media darling.” His favorable press in unusual precincts, such as Vogue and the New York Times (which recently speculated he has the best chance of beating Obama), is seen as evidence of his liberalness. Although this may be a “turn-off,” it is a vacuous one. Only Huntsman’s policies can be the true judge of his conservative bone fides; and the fact that liberal journalists and media staples are intrigued, and perhaps even like, Huntsman should be seen as an asset, not an albatross. To nominate a solid conservative whom liberals would actually consider voting for is something Republicans should value in a candidate. Equally stupid is discounting Huntsman because of his ambassadorial role in the Obama administration, as he has worked for every Republican presidential administration since the Reagan era.

That said, the Huntsman campaign is doing a terrible job at making its case. If he is to have a chance, he needs to aggressively counter the misconceptions about what his positions actually are relative to his competitors (not to mention, the beloved Chris Christie). No, he is not a staunch conservative, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that any of the other candidates are any more so, or that such a hypothetical candidate is even electable. If not, there is a serious worry Republican voters will reject out of hand an admirable, consistent conservative because they falsely believe he’s “too liberal,” while resigning their votes to a man who would sell out every conservative principle he purports to espouse the moment his political fortunes are in jeopardy -- which has only been Mitt Romney’s entire political career.

Also read Christian Adams: Huntsman Take Three