On Feb. 23, 2009, then–Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (R.) cast his eyes toward Washington, D.C. He did not like what he saw. President Obama was toasting the passage of his first major piece of legislation: the stimulus package. But Huntsman wasn’t peeved at the president; he was peeved at his own party.
The GOP was flailing in opposition, he kvetched on MSNBC. Its approach was all wrong: “It’s about bold solutions and pragmatic approaches that make us preeminent as opposed to gratuitous political griping,” Huntsman said, referring to the party’s reaction to the stimulus. “We’ve got to get beyond the gratuitous political carping.”
That same day, he laid the condemnation on extra thick: He told the Washington Times, “I don’t even know the congressional leadership. I’ve not met them. I don’t listen to or read whatever it is they say because it’s inconsequential — completely.”
Sounds as if he supported the stimulus. Well, not quite. Although Huntsman accepted the $1.5 billion that the legislation offered Utah, his reasoning — particularly the kind he outlined to Neil Cavuto on Fox News — was pragmatic: “If stimulus money is going to be invested in the U.S. economy, why don’t those dollars follow projects that are ready to go? Our state has more shovel-ready projects than any state in America right now.”
Or as Cavuto summed up: “You’re saying, look, if the money is going to be out there, we want dibs on this, too.”
Besides, Huntsman stressed — for months — that tax cuts should be part of the package. “For example, a payroll-tax exemption or maybe even a cut in the corporate tax . . . for small and medium-sized businesses for three years” should have been included, he told Politico after the bill’s signing. He even told Cavuto that he would have voted against the stimulus if he had been in Congress.
That said, Huntsman also argued that the stimulus should have been larger. “Well, the size of about a trillion dollars was floated by Mark Zandi, who’s a very respected economist,” he told Politico. (The CBO estimates that stimulus spending will amount to $830 billion.) “I tend to believe what he is saying about the size of the package, which didn’t necessarily hit the mark in terms of size.”
And while he had argued that tax cuts should have been part of the package, he said that infrastructure spending should have had an even larger role. In July 2009, he told the Milken Institute: “So you had maybe 25 percent infrastructure [in the stimulus], 75 percent all other categories — it should have been reversed, to my mind, so that coming out of the stimulus phase, we actually could have maybe achieved a better, stronger, more 21st-century infrastructure in our country.”
What’s more, like then–Florida governor Charlie Crist (R.), Huntsman spoke positively about the package as an act of public policy; he didn’t merely make the best of a fait accompli.
“Now the stimulus money comes in and it basically allows us to backfill in many of these critical areas like public and higher education and health care,” he said at the National Governors Association that February. “So we can now take the transportation money that was taken off the table a couple of months ago back to where it was originally intended. Our transportation budget is going to be whole.”
Congressional Republicans were less than enthused with his evaluation of their significance. A Republican aide tells National Review Online, “As I recall, the reaction was that if he didn’t know our leadership, he should have picked up a phone and called — not complained to the press in support of a trillion-dollar spending bill that utterly failed to live up to the promises made by his boss, President Obama.”
For his part, Huntsman has praised congressional Republicans’ recent work. “He’s certainly encouraged by the plans being brought forth by Paul Ryan and Speaker Boehner’s refusal to raise the debt limit without commensurate spending cuts,” Timothy Miller, a spokesman for Huntsman, tells NRO.
But before this recent attempt to make nice, his congressional brethren might have appreciated if he had aimed more of his fire at Obama — instead of them.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.