Politics & Policy

Huntsman: Weak-Kneed or Rock-Ribbed?

The former Utah governor’s record is a mix of centrism and conservatism.

Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah turned ambassador to China turned (almost certainly) 2012 presidential contender, has quickly been labeled the “moderate” GOP candidate. But while he’s made decisions (backing civil unions for same-sex couples, saying President Obama’s stimulus “probably wasn’t large enough”) sure to irk some on the right, Huntsman has also pushed for conservative initiatives over the years in matters ranging from taxes to health care to abortion. As the campaign season heats up, expect to see Huntsman backers make the case for his conservatism by highlighting his record on these five issues:

Taxes. As governor, Huntsman decreased Utah’s income-tax rate, switching from a top rate of 7 percent with various deductions to a flat rate of 5 percent with minimal tax credits. He also slashed the sales tax on non-prepared foods from 4.75 percent to 1.25 percent and lowered the overall sales tax from 4.75 percent to 4.65 percent. And if he’d had his way, he would have accomplished more: At the beginning of his tenure, Huntsman proposed eliminating the corporate franchise tax for small businesses making less than $5 million, an idea that failed to gain political traction.

Health care. Huntsman began focusing on health care in 2005, when less than a third of Utah businesses with 50 or fewer employees provided their staff with health insurance. In 2009 Utah created a state insurance exchange for small businesses. Employers gave a defined contribution, and employees were allowed to choose from an array of plans. “It’s really a model of defined-contribution, consumer-choice health-care insurance,” says Edmund Haislmaier, a senior research fellow in health-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, adding that Huntsman was a “prime mover” in creating the exchange. Unlike Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan, the Utah program did not include an individual mandate or strive to provide universal coverage. It’s too early to tell how the exchange will work out – it wasn’t fully launched until 2010 — but it will give Huntsman credibility on the “replace” part of the assault on Obamacare.

School choice. Huntsman remains the only U.S. governor to have signed a bill instituting statewide school vouchers. The legislation gave most Utah parents vouchers worth $500 to $3,000 (the amount depended on family income) per child annually to apply toward private-school tuition. Unfortunately for school-choice advocates, the teachers’ union launched a massive push against the law and succeeded in putting the question of vouchers on the ballot. Huntsman, who had campaigned in support of vouchers, did not actively urge support for them after the backlash began. Ultimately, over 60 percent of Utah residents voted against school vouchers.

Abortion. In 2006, Huntsman signed a bill that required girls under 18 to obtain parental consent for an abortion. Three years later, he signed a trio of pro-life bills that made second-trimester abortions illegal, changed performing a late-term illegal abortion from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony, required abortion providers to explain to women 24 hours before the abortion the kind of pain an unborn child experiences during the procedure, and created a legal fund to which residents could donate for the purpose of defending in the courts a state ban on abortion that is expected to be passed before 2014.

Foreign policy. While Huntsman’s position as ambassador to China is his best-known foreign posting, it’s not his only one. Under George H. W. Bush, Huntsman served as ambassador to Singapore, an appointment that made him, at 32, the youngest U.S. ambassador in a century. Huntsman also served as a deputy trade ambassador for George W. Bush, a position that included negotiations with other nations on free-trade agreements. With the 2012 field short on contenders with foreign-policy credentials, Huntsman’s international experience may prove an appealing difference to some primary voters.

It remains to be seen whether Jon Huntsman can successfully be all things to all men. But if, by stressing different parts of his record, he can successfully sell himself as a moderate to centrists and a conservative to hard-liners, he could be difficult to beat.

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO staff reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...


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