Q&A: Jon Hunstman, Moderate Republican

In this 2009 Rolling Stone interview, the now-presidential candidate came off almost as a big government conservative

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John Huntsman
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Former Utah Governor John Huntsman kicks off his bid for the GOP’s 2012 nomination this morning against the Reaganesque backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. I interviewed Huntsman for Rolling Stone in the spring of 2009, when the Republican Party’s prospects were dim, the Tea Party had yet to assert itself, and Huntsman – presidential aspirations beginning to stir – was marketing himself as a breed apart from the "nativists" and dead-enders of the Party of No.

In our conversation, Huntsman spun himself as a future-oriented, big-idea wielding, and, frankly, big government Republican, eager to rebuild the GOP in the image of Eisenhower, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

Huntsman has since tacked both left and right. He served in the Obama administration as ambassador to China, and has distanced himself from his once staunchly progressive stand on climate change.

Here, published for the first time, are excerpts from the interview in which Huntsman advocates passionately for federal spending on infrastructure, placing a price on carbon, and creating a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. He also calls on his fellow Republicans to embrace civil unions, expand the GOP’s demographic base and show leadership and intellectual honesty by putting solutions on the table, not just criticizing Obama.

Let’s get specific. What needs to be challenged within the Republican Party.

We’re not focused on the big ideas. Where are the breakthroughs on health care? Where are the breakthroughs on energy, and on cleaning up the air, and on renewable energy incentives to create the industry of tomorrow?

We’re not going to be in the game unless we focus once again on preeminence as opposed to partisanship – and that means big, bold ideas that have actually been vetted and implemented in states, where people have actually said, "That’s a good idea. We’ve seen it in action, and it’s been done under Republican leadership." And then you take some of these ideas and roll them out on a national stage.

Do you see any of that leadership coming from Washington?

In Congress, no. I hear a lot of partisanship, a lot of the minority party rhetoric. In terms of leading out with bold proposals and ideas I don’t sense any of that right now.

We’ve got to expand our demographics in this party. And the only way we’re going to be able to do that is by reaching out to those who have been disenfranchised, and prove the point that we can actually come up with policies that are good for them. And do it in a Republican way.

With respect to climate and the environment, let’s talk about the novel innovations and technologies that are gonna create jobs, and expand our economy over the next generation. Let’s put climate change in national security terms – we don’t do that! Yet that’s what Republicans, at least traditionally, have been able to relate to.

Where do you stand on cap-and-trade?

We’ve got, by and large, the entire body of the scientific community that has rendered a judgment. It’s not just in the United States, it’s every academy of sciences [in the world] that has weighed in on the subject, and they’ve all said, “There’s something going on here, and the chances are very good that it is man-made.”

So let’s find practical policy solutions for rolling back a hundred years of industrialization. That’s a fair and legitimate debate, and one where we have to be intellectually honest. We can’t just dismiss it as bunk. That’s not going to get us anywhere as a party.

Fundamentally, we have to put a value on carbon. You either do it in a cap-and-trade scenario, or you come up with a carbon tax. I would fundamentally support some way of putting a value on carbon. That must begin our discussion if we’re ever going to come up with a system that incentivizes people to begin reducing their emissions.

That and investing in new technologies that will be carbon-free. They’re out there, and they’re being developed and will be ready for commercialization in the next few years. But how do you get to that point? You get to that point by placing an economic value on carbon – I don’t think there’s any other way to do it. And I’ve had a hundred conversations with people about how you get to that point, and I’ve never heard any legitimate player – including some major CEOs, by the way – offer any recommendation other than other than putting some sort of legitimate value on carbon.

And let me just say, with respect to cap-and-trade and the carbon tax. It’s one thing to dismiss it. But if you’re gonna dismiss something, put an alternative on the table. Give us another solution. And that’s where I think our party has fallen flat – we tend to rush to criticize, and we rarely fill the vacuum with a new idea.

Let’s talk two issues that have been used as political cudgels in the last couple of elections – a very hard-line stance on immigration and zero flexibility on traditional marriage.  Is your sense that a party that holds those two positions can’t connect to a new generation of voters?

They cannot connect to the new generation of voters. Plain and simple.

It’s gonna take time, to be sure, to understand the messages from the ’06 election cycle when the nativist language drove a lot of people out [of the GOP], particularly those newcomers to the United States. But let’s get to where the fixes need to be made – as opposed to vilifying groups of people. Fundamentally, we’ve got to expand our demographic base.

There is such thing as rule of law, and we’ve got to fix our bureaucracy in Washington that processes people’s pathway towards citizenship. I authored for all the western governors, along with Janet Napolitano, a position paper a couple years ago on how we fix the immigration situation. We took it back, we met with McCain, met with legislative leaders, and of course, there was no political will on the part of Congress to do anything about it. They completely abdicated their responsibility.

You’ve also talked about civil unions for gay couples as a civil right. That’s a bold statement from a Republican.

It has long been a Republican view that individual rights are important. I still believe in traditional marriage. But just subordinate to that, civil unions, I think, are something that is worth discussing, and for Republicans, worth seriously considering.

What is your take on the president’s stimulus package?

We took the stimulus. We take federal funds all the time – in fact, our budget is probably 50 percent federal funds, like every other state in America. Find me one state that has totally dismissed 100 percent of the funds. You can’t find one. These are funds that, by and large, we would be getting over time anyway, to support health care, to support transportation, to support education.

My biggest complaint is that only 25 percent went to infrastructure. I think 75 percent should have gone into infrastructure. And projects that really would have spoken to economic development and innovation and connecting some of our emerging cities and regions – making them more economically viable. We need the infrastructure. We need it quickly. And I don’t think we had nearly enough that was focused on key projects.

What do you make of the Tea Party movement?

I got criticized here by our Tea Party, because I took the money, but then you have to say, “Every other governor took the money, too.” So I’m not quite sure what the message was. But the Tea Party, if you’re really whizzed off about taxes, all you have to do is look at what we’ve done. We’ve lowered taxes in a way that’s never been done before in the history of our state. We took practically the entire sales tax off of food, we took the income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent. This took two years of heavy lifting, and a lot of criticism, even from a fairly conservative legislature that I thought would accept it on Day One. But if you look at the overall trajectory of our taxes here in the state, they’ve gone down, and fairly significantly so.

What is the Huntsman brand of Republicanism?

It’s about intellectual honesty. It’s about country before party. It’s about preeminence over partisanship. It’s about expanding our demographic appeal by hard-hitting, realistic, thoughtful proposals that really do begin to address the issues of the day, like health care, energy, and the economy. Which, at least in our state, would top anybody’s list.

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