Most conversations in Washington these days end up running down the list of likely GOP candidates who will run for the presidential nomination in 2012. The strengths and weaknesses of Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Haley Barbour are quickly calculated; but when it comes to one name, the conversation falters. Not too much is known about Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the present U.S. ambassador to China, who turned 51 a few days ago.
Most people only know Huntsman as a wealthy Mormon. He and his wife Mary have seven children, with one daughter adopted from China and another from India. His father, Jon M. Huntsman Sr., served two years in the Navy before beginning work for an egg-production company. Having helped to develop the first plastic egg carton, the elder Huntsman began the slow climb to become one of the wealthiest men in America.
Like his father, Huntsman attended the University of Utah, and after a brief stint in Taipei went to work in the Reagan White House, first as staff assistant, then as deputy assistant secretary of commerce. President George H. W. Bush appointed him ambassador to Singapore, and President George W. Bush made him a deputy United States trade representative. In November 2004, Huntsman was elected as the Republican governor of Utah; in 2008, he was reelected with 77.7 percent of the vote. At the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, it was Governor Huntsman who gave the speech that introduced Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential nomination.
The nomination of a Republican governor as ambassador to China was prompted in part by Huntsman’s knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, as well as his expertise in international business through the Huntsman Corporation and the diplomatic experience he gained working for both Reagan and Bush. Politico speculated at the time that it may have been a calculated move by Obama to hurt Huntsman’s chance of becoming the GOP presidential nominee.
After the announcement of Huntsman’s resignation, as ambassador to China, effective in May 2011, reporters at Politico wrote:
The political calculus behind that praise [from the White House] is straightforward: by wrapping their arms around some of the GOP’s most credible and deep-pocketed potential challengers, Democrats undermine the party’s attempt to win over its conservative base in the primary.
The scrutiny began when Huntsman’s supporters created the Horizon PAC in August 2010, but it wasn’t until the PAC launched its official website last February with its teaser “Maybe Someday” that the vetting began in earnest. The question most asked about Huntsman is how Obama’s ambassador to China, ostensibly a “moderate” Republican, could gain the nomination of a party presently being fueled by the energy of Tea Party and social conservative activists.
Huntsman’s record suggests the possibility is not so far-fetched as some might think. Social conservatives may not realize that, as governor, he signed three pro-life bills to help limit abortions in the state of Utah. Huntsman also signed the most important school choice voucher program in the nation, a universal program not limited to low-income students in a particular district or poorly performing schools. Huntsman also signed legislation protecting the Second Amendment rights of Americans to own firearms.
As a fiscal conservative, Huntsman’s credentials are unquestioned. While governor, Utah won an award from the Pew Center’s Government Performance Project as the “Best Managed State in the Union,” and in 2007 Huntsman signed the largest tax cut in Utah’s history, earning his state the Cato Institute’s number-one ranking in tax policy. Last year, Forbes magazine described Utah as the nation’s leading state in job growth and the “best state” for business and careers. On top of all this, Utah’s economy has recorded five consecutive years of 3.5 percent annual growth.
On Huntsman’s effort to reform health care in Utah, he does not share the vulnerability of the other Mormon candidate seeking the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney. While Romney’s health care program in Massachusetts is seen by many as a prototype for Obamacare, Huntsman’s health care measures in Utah were designed to give individuals and families choices about their coverage and how to pay for it. For example, one piece of legislation gave citizens of Utah the ability to take defined contributions from their employers and buy their own coverage. Utah created a website called NetCare, allowing citizens to shop and compare health insurance programs.
The better-known GOP frontrunners for the nomination each has obstacles to overcome: Pawlenty will have to explain to Catholic voters why he left the Church of his birth; Romney’s Achilles heel is health care; Gingrich’s personal history will continue to dog him, and so on.
But Huntsman has a chance to define himself on the basis of a solid record in the midst of a field of candidates with multiple handicaps. There is good reason why David Plouffe, the former campaign manager for President Obama, said the prospect of a Huntsman candidacy makes him “a wee bit queasy.”