Despite the supposed inevitability of Mitt Romney, many conservatives are clearly still looking for an alternative for the Republican nomination. Newt Gingrich has become the latest to hold that title, but, as Gingrich’s liberal positions on everything from health care to TARP become better known, conservatives are likely to go shopping again.
One wonders, therefore, if a conservative case could be made for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, as has been suggested by several conservative columnists recently, including George Will, Jim Pethokoukis, and Joe Scarborough. Indeed, it is interesting that Huntsman was so quickly dismissed as a RINO, when many of his positions actually appear to be to the right of both Romney and Gingrich.
On health care, for example, Huntsman flirted with an individual mandate — unfortunately, a lot of conservatives did when the idea was being pushed by the Heritage Foundation — but, unlike Romneycare, the plan he ultimately developed for Utah did not include one. It did, however, include a new regulatory bureaucracy called “the portal,” a less onerous version of President Obama’s health-insurance exchanges or Mitt Romney’s Connector. Note that “less onerous” does not mean “good idea.” On the other hand, Huntsman did not support the Medicare prescription-drug benefit that both Romney and Gingrich backed.
On education, Huntsman clearly has a better record than either Romney or Gingrich. While both of them backed No Child Left Behind and continue to push for greater federal involvement in education, Huntsman opposed NCLB, saying, “We need to take education to the local level, where parents and local elected officials can determine the destiny of these schools.” He actually signed a bill that gave Utah’s educational standards priority over NCLB, letting education officials in Utah “ignore provisions of federal law that conflict with the state’s program.” And he pushed through a substantial school-choice program in Utah.
Huntsman also appears to be to the right of both Gingrich and Romney on key economic issues such as taxes, spending, and entitlement reform. He has backed a truly bold plan for tax reform, a flatter tax that eliminates nearly all distortionary deductions and loopholes, while slashing rates. He would reduce the top personal income tax rate to 23 percent, and the corporate rate to 25 percent. The plan has been praised by the Wall Street Journal, which called it “certainly better than what we’ve seen from the frontrunners.”
While he has not signed the Americans for Tax Reform “No Tax Pledge,” he joined his fellow Republicans in rejecting even a ten-to-one spending-cut-to-tax-hike deal for deficit reduction.
When it comes to cutting spending, Huntsman is not exactly Ron Paul, but he’s not bad compared with most of his other GOP competitors. Huntsman would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP. By comparison, Romney has called for a 20 percent spending cap, while Gingrich has made no specific commitments to a level of spending cap. On entitlements, Huntsman, unlike Romney and Gingrich, has explicitly embraced Paul Ryan’s Medicare-reform plan. He is vaguer on Social Security reform, but has spoken positively of benefit cuts, including means-testing and raising the retirement age. That’s not as good as personal accounts — Huntsman hasn’t taken a position on them yet — but it’s a reasonable first step.
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.