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Jon Huntsman and the Rise of the Republican Governors

Huntsman may see himself having a realistic shot at the nomination. But beyond what is shaping up to be largely a media-driven fantasy run, there is the notion that what Huntsman represents -- his principles, his governing style, and his government-friendly ideas -- may outlast his candidacy and herald a rise in national influence for a new breed of GOP governor.

They are chief executives who have built solid reputations for reform by gaining consensus rather than provoking confrontation. They are less the ideologues than idea men, preferring to work with the opposition when feasible and getting high marks from voters for doing so. Their bottom line is getting the job done, not playing "gotcha" games or scoring wins and losses. It may be more a matter of temperament than intelligence or skill, and they place a premium on competent management of the executive.

Some, like Mitch Daniels  and Mitt Romney, are technocrats. Others, like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, are more confrontational, but get high marks for their political skills. In the end, getting things done trumps ideology and sometimes even partisanship.

Most GOP governors ended up taking stimulus money, of which about $120 billion was earmarked for the states. It is likely that even without a stim bill, that money would have ended up in the hands of the governors anyway, due to the fiscal crisis in most state budgets. Faced with the choice of ideology or pragmatism. most chose the latter. This did not sit well with many national Republicans who hold it against those GOP governors who put the interests of their states over the the political whims of ideologues.

Huntsman may be the epitome of this new class of governor. Daniel Allott summarized the conservative case for Huntsman in Politico:

Huntsman has a strong pro-life record, both as a chief executive, signing several innovative pro-life laws as Utah's governor from 2005 to 2009, and as a private citizen, as a father of seven, two adopted. He also supports gun rights and has an unwavering commitment to Israel.

Huntsman signed the largest tax cut in Utah history. During his tenure, the state was named the nation's "best managed" by the Pew Center on the States, and cited as one of the top three states in which to do business. Forbes labeled Huntsman's Utah the most "fiscally fit" state for its combination of low debt and taxes and low unemployment.

With approval ratings bumping up against 90% while in office, Huntsman appeared to be conservative enough for residents in Utah -- arguably one of the most conservative states in the nation.

But he appears equally unacceptable to those Republicans who run the presidential nominating process -- activists and ideologues. His ambassadorship to China, his family's support for Harry Reid, and his belief in civil unions for gays are all disqualifying factors.

But should they be? Governors are judged successful by a different criteria than congressmen or senators -- or ex-governors who have been out of office a while. By necessity, a state's chief executive embraces the role of government in society, pulling the levers and turning the wheels of power in order to effect a desired result -- reform of health care, lower taxes, education reform, etc. What makes many GOP governors stand out today is that there is a large segment of the Republican Party that sees any friendliness shown toward government as suspect. Government is the enemy. There are no redeeming features in the behemoth and everything from Social Security and Medicare to transportation and education spending is either wasteful or unnecessary.

No one is arguing that government isn't too big, that a strong federalism giving states a larger role in running the country isn't required, or that reducing the intrusiveness of government in our everyday lives isn't desirable. But governors like Huntsman were judged successful because they applied conservative principles to the pragmatic operation of governing. Doing more with less, expanding choices, giving more control to counties, cities, towns, and villages -- all of this was done with the application of conservative philosophy to the technical management of governing.

Managing the bureaucracy, and standing for competency and "good government," might not sound exciting.  But it has proved successful for several GOP governors and might even get Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty elected president.