The Republican who President Obama appointed as his Ambassador to China – and who could be the 2012 challenger Democrats fear most – has no regrets about accepting a post in a Democratic administration. In fact, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
“I'd do it again. Of course. I've always been trained and I hope to train my own family that when your country needs you…if there is the prospect that you can get in there and bring about change in a way that helps your country through public service, I'm there,” Jon Huntsman told me in an exclusive interview.
I spoke to the former Utah governor as he kicked off his inaugural trip to New Hampshire. Huntsman told me he is “close” to making a decision about a presidential bid. So I asked him how – after serving in the Obama administration for two years – does he stand a chance at winning the Republican nomination?
“The president asked me, the president of all the people. And during a time of war, during a time of economic difficulty for our country, if I'm asked by my president to serve, I'll stand up and do it,” he said.
Huntsman dismissed calling Obama a “remarkable leader,” saying he was referring to Obama’s historic election in a thank you note. Does he still believe it?
“History will show how effective he is,” he said.
On foreign policy, Huntsman broke with Obama on Libya: “I would have chosen from the beginning not to intervene in Libya. I would say that is not core to our national security interest.”
And he suggested that a drawdown from Afghanistan was inevitable: “We have too much in the way of boots on the ground in corners of the world where we probably don't need it.”
It was the former ambassador’s most comprehensive interview since his return from China on April 30 and he laid out his positions on everything from the stimulus to “Obamacare.”
Huntsman made no apology for taking stimulus funds as governor.
“Let's face it, every governor took it,” he told me.
And he tried to explain away his past endorsement of an even larger trillion dollar stimulus proposed by Mark Zandi.
“That was his take,” Huntsman said. “And my take was, let's stimulate business. Let's look at tax cuts, let's look at payroll tax deductions.”
Huntsman stuck to current GOP orthodoxy on other areas:
- Obamacare: “If I had the chance to repeal it, I would.”
- The Ryan budget: “I would’ve voted for it.”
- The debt limit: “I would vote to increase the debt limit if there was a corresponding level of cuts.”
But he stood by past takes on civil unions for gay couples: “In the case of civil unions, I think it's a fairness issue. I believe in traditional marriage. But subordinate to that, I think we probably can do a better job when it comes to fairness and equality.”
And he stuck to his stance of giving some benefits to illegal immigrants: “If they're willing what needs to do be done and work hard, then I think if we're giving them an in-house tuition break, that integrates them into the system, and makes them part of ultimately contributing to our country.”
Those two issues could complicate his relationship with the Republican base.
On “cap and trade,” his current position is less clear. Here’s the exchange:
George Stephanopoulos: You invited the voters at that first event to look at your record. And…we see someone who supported civil unions for gay couples, supported having the children of illegal immigrants be able to pay in-state tuition in your state, supported cap and trade in the past as an energy policy. Every single one of those could be a big problem in the Republican primary. How do you deal with it?
Jon Huntsman: Well, first of all, I don't change on my positions. The circumstances change, like on cap and trade, for example. You know, today our focus — although we all care about the environment, today our number one priority's the economy — and we should not be doing anything that stands in the way of economic growth. And that which is going to move us forward in terms of expanding our economic base and creating jobs, period. That's not to say that all the while, you won't have people who are creating and innovating new approaches to dealing with emissions. That's going to continue.
George Stephanopoulos: But back in 2008, November of 2008, the beginning of the emissions, you said that dealing with those emissions was either going to take cap and trade or a carbon tax. Is that still true?
Jon Huntsman: And that was exactly what CEOs were saying, and that's exactly what all the experts were saying, and that's exactly what a whole lot of governors are saying at that point. The economy collapsed. We can no longer focus on that debate as aggressively as we did in years past. But that debate will continue because people care about the environment. But I suspect that the end point it's going to look a lot different than that original proposal. And we also have to remember, George, that this is an international challenge. If we come up with our own approach, and if the Chinese who are now the largest emitters in the world don't go up with their own, if the Indians don't come up with their own, we're all downstream. And if we unilaterally disarmed, we're disadvantaged economically. That point comes home loud and clear when you're living in Beijing, the most polluted city in the world. And you step outside and say this is a huge challenge. And all of this gunk, all of these emissions, they're going somewhere. And everyone's downstream these days. It's got to be an international fix.
One of my last questions came from a viewer, Joelyn Singley of Salt Lake City. She said she is confused by Huntsman’s recent comments on religion and asked is “he a practicing Mormon or not?”
“I believe in God. I'm a good Christian. I'm very proud of my Mormon heritage. I am Mormon,” he told me. “Today, there are 13 million Mormons. It's a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people. And you're going to find a lot of different attitudes and a lot of different opinions in that 13 million.”
So will the former ambassador run for president? He said there is only one person who could stop him.
“My wife,” Huntsman said.
Mary Kaye smiled, but didn’t say anything.
“That's the final decision. You either feel it inside, or you don't. You don't need people who whisper things in your ear. You either have a conviction about our place and time in history, and the importance of broadening and expanding the debate about some of these key issues,” he said.