Huntsman’s gubernatorial record suggests reasons for both optimism and concern on tax and spending issues. He sought to replace Utah’s graduated income tax with a flat tax, cut the state’s food tax in half, and attempted to eliminate the state’s capital-gains and corporate-franchise taxes. However, his record is not nearly as good on the spending side of the ledger. During his time in office, he proposed spending hikes in excess of 6 percent annually, well above the growth in Utahans’ personal incomes. In fact, measured in terms of percentage growth, Huntsman was one of the biggest-spending governors in the nation. Overall, he received a grade of B on the Cato Institute’s fiscal report card for governors. That beats the C that Cato awarded Mitt Romney.
On foreign policy, Huntsman has called for a less interventionist policy. He would move from a nation-building stance in Afghanistan to a counterterrorism approach with a smaller U.S. footprint, accelerating troop withdrawals. He is a strong free-trader and has opposed Romney’s mindless demagoguery on China trade.
The policy objections to Huntsman that one hears most from conservatives are about his positions on global warming and gay rights. On global warming Huntsman is clearly out of step with many conservatives both in backing the idea of anthropogenic warming and in calling for government action to combat it. Although he had backed away from his earlier support for cap-and-trade, there is ample reason to be suspicious of how he would govern on this issue. Still, is his position appreciably worse than, say, Newt Gingrich’s?
Huntsman also supports civil unions for gay couples. While this may upset some social conservatives, it is well within the mainstream for most American voters. Indeed, with voters increasingly supportive of gay marriage, Huntsman may be the GOP candidate least out of touch on the issue.
But for many conservatives, Huntsman’s biggest flaw appears to be a question not of policy positions but of attitude. Huntsman seems so enamored of hearing good things about himself on Morning Joe or in the New York Times editorial pages that it drives him to pick unnecessary fights with the GOP base. He often seems contemptuous and dismissive of those who disagree with him. One can’t help feeling that he regards broad swaths of the Republican electorate as ignorant hicks. This is probably unfair — and when it comes to unbridled arrogance, no one can top Newt — but it does raise legitimate concerns about whether a President Huntsman would be willing to take positions that earned him criticism from the establishment press.
Clearly Huntsman would not be an ideal candidate for conservatives. But given the big-government tilt of both Gingrich and Romney, they may want to at least kick the tires on this model.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.