On the surface, Jon Huntsman’s prescription for righting the nation’s fiscal woes is standard Republican fare: cut spending, rein in entitlements, reform the tax code and pass a balanced-budget amendment. But dig in a little deeper — ask whether he insists on the balanced-budget amendment that the House passed this summer, the one that goes far beyond what he and nearly all of the nation’s other governors have lived with, undermining majority-rule by turning tax policy over to a minority in either house of the Congress — and you hear one of the essential differences between the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China and the rest of the GOP presidential field.
“Listen, this is going to come down to a negotiation,” Mr. Huntsman said during a visit with our editorial board on Monday. “During the debt-ceiling debate, we got people in their respective corners kind of firing at each other, not willing to make a deal and move on. At some point you’ve got to get the work of the nation done. And I bring that perspective from having been a governor.
“People elect you to get things done. You just can’t stay in your respective corner, fire rhetorically at the other side and expect the business of the nation to move forward and the marketplace to respond positively. It’s not going to happen.”
As with most of the things that distinguish Mr. Huntsman from the other Republican presidential candidates, I can easily remember a time when this perspective would have been unremarkable. What serious candidate for president, or for governor, or for the Congress, didn’t understand that negotiation is essential to a functioning republic? Or to running a business, or surviving a marriage or raising a family or living anywhere other than alone on a deserted island, for that matter?
But of course that’s out of fashion with the most coveted wing of the Republican Party. The tea party, presenting a louder mirror image of the most extreme voices in the Democratic Party, has declared that compromise is evil and that it supports only “real,” uncompromising conservatives — which means those who don’t have a prayer of appealing to the moderate middle of our nation, and certainly couldn’t govern if they somehow managed to do so.
So the presidential contenders are falling all over each other to demonstrate who can be the most obstinate and hardheaded. Sort of like they’re falling all over each other to demonstrate who can be the angriest and embrace the most extremist ideas and say the most vitriolic things about the Democratic president.
None of that interests Mr. Huntsman. And unless or until someone else with his values enters the race, or he sells his soul in a vain attempt to woo tea party voters, that makes him the most important candidate in the 2012 presidential field. Not because he has the perfect plan to revive our economy or tackle the disturbingly large federal deficit and debt or cure any of the other ills of a nation that has lost its way, but because of the vital values that he represents: pragmatism and honor and old-fashioned decency. Because this election will test whether the sensible center can hold, or the angry extremes have finally overrun us. (What a sad commentary on the rapid disintegration of civility, that Mr. Huntsman should seem so out of place in the party that just four years ago nominated Sen. John McCain, the most honorable presidential candidate I’ve ever met.)
Mr. Huntsman describes himself as a “mainstream conservative” in a nation that he is convinced is mainstream conservative, and pragmatic, and he talks frequently about the real world. As in: “We live in the real world; we have to come up with real-world fixes and solutions. They can’t be political. They can’t be pie in the sky. They can’t appeal to one end of the political spectrum or the other. They can’t be pandering. We just can’t afford that anymore.” It’s a concept that seems to have disappeared from our nation’s capital, and from hate TV, and from too much of the casual conversation even among smart, apolitical people.
He doesn’t say kind things about the way President Obama has governed. But his critique is all job performance, not personality, and certainly without the invective that the crowds love to hear. “The president’s a good man, he’s earnest, he has a great family,” he told us. “But I would have to tell you he has failed us in the most important task of our time, and that is doing what’s necessary to infuse confidence and predictability in our economy, during a time of national economic emergency.”
As his opponents wrap themselves in the flag of hollow patriotism, he lives the patriotism that carries a price: Two and a half years ago, he took himself out of the political world and earned the distrust of voters who confuse party with country by accepting the president’s call to serve in one of our nation’s most important strategic posts, as ambassador to China. “If you love your country, you serve her,” he says simply. “That’s my philosophy. And that’ll be the philosophy I take to my grave.”
As anger invigorates the tea party and its would-be standard bearers, he focuses on the great strengths of our nation: stability, the rule of law, the longest-standing constitution in the world, private property rights, “the most innovative, creative, entrepreneurial class of people the world has ever known , the greatest think tanks, medical facilities, hospitals anywhere in the world , the most courageous armed services ever seen.”
“I’ve raised seven kids and seen everything that life can throw at you, and that either makes you angry or it turns you into a problem solver,” he said. Governors are either problem-solvers or failures; he wasn’t a failure. “I’m not going to buy into the angry side of life, because I see the goodness underneath.”
As I walked him out of the building after our meeting, Mr. Huntsman asked what our state’s biggest challenges were. I reeled off the obvious answers — a dismal economy, an antiquated tax system, a broken budgeting process, a government in need of overhaul. “All entirely fixable,” he said. Yes, I responded, if you have leaders of good will who understand that they have to work together and compromise. “Exactly,” he said.