Huntsman Up Close

August 25, 2011 2:54 p.m.

This afternoon I had the opportunity to attend a journalists’ Q&A with former Utah Gov. John Huntsman (R) put on by Bloomberg View. I’ll probably write about it more going forward. But I just wanted to share some quick impressions while they are fresh in my mind.

My first impression was that Huntsman comes off considerably better in person than on TV. Not that he comes off badly in broadcast media. But he’d looked a bit like a waif, maybe with a bit of a joker’s grin when I’ve seen him on television. But he cut a considerably more impressive, substantial figure in person. The Obama folks are right to hope he doesn’t get near the nomination. Because I think he’d be a formidable challenger in an economic climate as bad as the one we’re in. At this point most base Republicans would probably vote for one of Obama’s Kenyan 3rd cousins over Obama. So any nominee will have those folks banked. And Huntsman would appeal to moderates and Democrats far better than Perry or I think Romney. Setting aside looks and atmospherics, he’s just clearly a very knowledgable guy. So sounds like I was impressed? Yeah, I was.

What’s the sales pitch? I’m the moderate, reality-based Republican who’s not a total phony who changes his position based on the political considerations of the moment.Did he call Romney a phony? Well, he didn’t use that word. But he came about as close as serious political contenders do if that’s the kind of message they’re trying to send. I asked Huntsman about the now famous “Call me Crazy” tweet in response to Gov. Perry. His response was essentially, those are my views, I’m on the record on evolution and climate already so I’m going to let the chips fall, etc. (“If you’re honest you don’t have to fear the results.”) But then I followed up noting that Gov. Romney had apparently just changed his opinion on climate change and did he have any comment.

“If you’re going to be on both sides of every issue,” said Huntsman about Romney, “it just makes it a hard thing … Is that a political or a real-world answer? When are you going to stand up and show leadership?” You get the idea. And I didn’t get a sense it pained Huntsman to render his verdict on Romney.

Again and again his refrain was Tea Party orthodoxies versus “living in the real world.” On Grover Norquist and his tax pledge: “I live in the real world.”

Which isn’t to say he gave any ground on increased revenues as having any part in getting the country out of the fiscal ditch.

The other big impression I had is that Huntsman is only a moderate relative to the extreme right-wing turn of the current Republican party. And this is not a high bar. His views on economic policy are firmly to the right, just not nuts. He made a point of noting that he was the only candidate in the Iowa debate who was flatly against default. (“That’s not in the real world.”) But his basic diagnosis of our economic crisis is that regulatory overreach and ‘Obamacare’ have created ‘uncertainty’ that is keeping job creators on the sidelines. And that seems like a diagnosis and prescription at odds with almost all the available evidence.

He skirted the issue of taxes by saying he’s for revenue neutral tax reform — closing loopholes, lowering rates etc. The implicit message seemed to be: I’m not some hidebound Norquist type who’s not going to let any tax go up or any loophole get closed. Sort of gave him a little wiggle room. But still, no net new revenues.

He pointed to tax reform in his home state which he proudly noted the CATO Institute says is the best tax regime in the country. Again, not particularly moderate in my book.

One thing that really stuck out at me. Huntsman said he supports getting rid of the home mortgage interest deduction in its entirety. Really not sure how that plays in a general election or frankly in any election since it amounts to a really big tax hike for basically everybody and hits middle income voters particularly hard. If by some weird chance he’s the nominee, you’ll hear about that a lot.

The foreign policy is foreign involvement minimalism. He put himself to the left of Obama and Bush on Afghanistan, would like to get out sooner, etc. The general pitch was that pretty much all of our robust deployments in the Arab world and even legacy deployments in Europe are a distraction from the true challenges facing the country.

Which brings us back to the question: is there any reason even to be talking about this guy as he makes his current climb from .5% support to 1% support in the polls? There was a certain logic to his argument but not that much evidence. And not enought to change my basic read. Here’s the gist: Skip Iowa. Go hard in New Hampshire where he can work not just Republicans but a large number of independents and cross-over Democrats. (“I like the world view coming out of New Hampshire!”) And then take the New Hampshire momentum into South Carolina.

I mean, that seems pretty hard to figure. And will probably involve emerging out of single digits at some point, unless there’s a part of the calculus I’m missing.

That’s my quick take. What’s yours?

Masthead Masthead
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