'This Week' Transcript: Jon Huntsman, David Axelrod

Jon Huntsman comes out swinging against his GOP rivals.

ByABC News
August 21, 2011, 11:44 AM

Aug. 21, 2011— -- (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER (voice-over): This week, Huntsman on the hunt.

HUNTSMAN: I wouldn't necessarily trust any of my opponents.

TAPPER: Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is hitting hard against his own party's frontrunners, Mitt Romney...

HUNTSMAN: If we were to talk about his inconsistencies, we'd be here all afternoon.

TAPPER: ... Michele Bachmann...

HUNTSMAN: I just don't know what world that comment would come from.

TAPPER: ... and as for Rick Perry...

HUNTSMAN: When you find yourself at an extreme end of the Republican Party, you make yourself unelectable.

TAPPER: Then, as President Obama experiences some of the worst poll numbers of his political career, we'll talk to top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And as President Obama heads to Martha's Vineyard...

SAWYER: We were watching stocks go down again.

TAPPER: Plus, some surprising numbers about what's driving voters with Republican pollster Frank Luntz. He'll join our roundtable with George Will, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, and Fox Business Network's Liz Claman.

ANNOUNCER: Live from the Newseum in Washington, "This Week" with Christiane Amanpour starts right now.


TAPPER: Good morning. Christiane is off. I'm Jake Tapper. And we will get to our exclusive interview with Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman in the moment. But first, some news since your morning papers.

Libyan rebels say they're closing in on Moammar Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli, a day after fighters launched their first attack on the capital. Heavy gunfire and explosions battered Tripoli last night, with reports of coordinated NATO air strikes, after fighters captured the strategic coastal town of Zawiyah. Gadhafi's regime vows its fighters will defend the Libyan capital.

In Egypt, protests continued outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo after a rare apology by the Israeli government on Saturday for the deaths of three Egyptian soldiers. This latest round of violence began on Thursday when eight Israelis were killed in an attack on Israeli buses. The escalating tensions has sparked new violence in Gaza, as Palestinians have hit southern Israel with at least 80 rockets and mortars since Friday in response to Israeli air strikes.

Turning now to the race for the Republican nomination. The top-tier candidates all turned their sights on the first-in-the-nation primary state, New Hampshire. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Michele Bachmann all spent time in the "Live Free or Die" state. And one candidate who's staking everything on a strong showing in New Hampshire is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. I spoke with him earlier.


TAPPER: And joining me now from San Diego is the former governor of Utah and former U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. Governor, thanks for joining us.

HUNTSMAN: Thank you, Jake. Honored to be here.

TAPPER: So, Governor, last week on this program, your Republican colleague, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, dropped out of the race. And this is what he said: Quote, "What I brought forward I thought was a rational"...

PAWLENTY: ... established, credible, strong record of results, based on experience governing, a two-term governor of a blue state, but I think the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different.

TAPPER: Isn't Governor Pawlenty describing the same problem you're having on the campaign trail right now?

HUNTSMAN: Right now, this country is crying out for a sensible middle ground. This is a center-right country; I am a center-right candidate. Right now, we've got people on the fringes.

President Obama is too far to the left. We've got people on the Republican side who are too far to the right. And we have zero substance. We have no good ideas that are being circulated or talked about that will allow this country to get back on its feet economically so that we can begin creating jobs.

TAPPER: You've said that President Obama is out of ideas on the economy. What are your ideas?

HUNTSMAN: The most important thing we can do to get this economy going today is, number one, we've got to reform our taxes. We've got to create a competitive tax code, just like we did in the state of Utah. We've got to take the business tax, which is the second highest in the developed world, and we've got to phase out the loopholes and the deductions, get rid of the corporate welfare. We've got to lower the rate and broaden the base.

Number two, we've got to get the regulatory money off our back. People aren't putting money into the marketplace. They're not hiring because there's so much uncertainty and confusion about where this economy is going.

Number three, I think the most important step we can take in terms of perhaps immediate job creation is energy independence, weaning ourselves away from this heroin-like addiction to imported oil.

Those are the three things that I would drop on the doorstep of Congress the day that I'm elected president.

TAPPER: You instituted a flatter tax system in Utah as governor, bringing rates to 5 percent, but your critics say that the flat tax system in Utah raised taxes on the middle class while essentially cutting them for wealthier individuals in Utah, such as yourself. How could you institute a flat tax across the country without raising taxes on the middle class?

HUNTSMAN: We -- you simply phase out the deductions and the loopholes and the biases in the system, and you use that to pay down the rate. You can do it in a revenue-neutral fashion.

TAPPER: Your competitor, Mitt Romney, made similar comments in support of a flatter tax system this week in New Hampshire. Here's what he said: Quote, "The proposals that I'll be putting out this fall will talk about bringing our tax rates down"...

ROMNEY: ... both at the corporate level and the individual level, simplifying the tax code, perhaps with fewer brackets. The idea of one bracket alone would be even better, in some respects.

TAPPER: So are you and Mitt Romney on the same page on this issue?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I know in 1996 he was against a flat tax. You know, if we were to talk about his inconsistencies and the changes on various issues, we'd be here all afternoon. But if he's in favor of a flat tax now where he wasn't before, at least he's moving in the right direction.

TAPPER: Well, let's talk about some of your other competitors, because this was a big week for Texas Governor Rick Perry. He went on the campaign trail, and he raised a lot of eyebrows. He made some comments about evolution and he said this about climate change: Quote, "I don't think, from my perspective, that I want to be"...

PERRY: ... engaged in spending that much money on still a scientific theory that has not been proven and, from my perspective, is more and more being put into question.

TAPPER: These comments from Governor Perry prompted you to tweet, quote, "To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." Were you just being cheeky? Or do you think there's a serious problem with what Governor Perry said?

HUNTSMAN: I think there's a serious problem. The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party -- the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people that would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012.

When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science and, therefore, in a losing position.

TAPPER: Governor Perry also caused some controversy this week when he said this about Fed Chair Ben Bernanke: Quote, "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa"...

PERRY: ... but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. I mean, printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous -- or treasonous, in my opinion.

TAPPER: A former Bush political guru, Karl Rove, called that remark "unpresidential." What do you think?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I don't know if that's pre-secession Texas or post-secession Texas, but in any event, I'm not sure that the average voter out there is going to hear that treasonous remark and say that sounds like a presidential candidate, that sounds like someone who is serious on the issues.

But it gets to a broader of, you know, the fact that, you know, we've had so much hope and hype in politics the last little while. We've found ourselves at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. And people are crying out for us to get back to some level of sensibility.

And every time we have these sideshows take place, finger-pointing and name-calling, it takes us that much further off the ball, which is fixing our core in this country, is getting our economy fixed and creating jobs.

TAPPER: So do you think that Governor Perry is unelectable? Were he to get the Republican nomination, he would lose to President Obama?

HUNTSMAN: I think when you find yourself at an extreme end of the Republican Party, you make yourself unelectable.

TAPPER: This week, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said at a town hall meeting in South Carolina that she would pursue energy policies that would send gas prices back down to levels not seen since early 2009. Quote, "The day that the president became president"...

BACHMANN: ... gasoline was $1.79 a gallon. Look at what it is today. Under President Bachmann, you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again. That will happen.

TAPPER: Do you think "that will happen"?

HUNTSMAN: You know, I just -- I just don't know what -- what world that comment would come from, you know? We live in the real world. It's grounded in reality. And gas prices just aren't going to rebound like that.

But just as we are in a static world, that is completely unrealistic. And, again, it's talking about things that, you know, may pander to a particular group or sound good at the time, but it just simply is not founded in reality.

TAPPER: You were one of the only, if not the only Republican candidate to support the deal to raise the debt ceiling. You called Congresswoman Bachmann's position a, quote, "crash-and-burn approach." Would you trust a President Bachmann to do the right thing with the economy?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I wouldn't necessarily trust any of my opponents right now who were on a recent debate stage with me, when every single one of them would have allowed this country to default.

You can imagine -- even given the uncertainty of the marketplace the last several days and even the last couple of weeks -- if we had defaulted, the first time in the history of the greatest country that ever was, being 25 percent of the world's GDP and having the largest financial services sector in this world by a long shot, if we had defaulted, Jake, this marketplace would be in absolute turmoil. And people who are already losing enough as it is on their 401(k)s and retirement programs and home valuations, it would have been catastrophic.

So I have to say that there was zero leadership on display in terms of my opponents, zero leadership on display in terms of the president, who should have used the bully pulpit well ahead of time. He should have walked away from the TelePrompTer. The people want you to speak from your heart and soul. Tell us where you want us to go. Tell us what you expect from Congress. Tell us what's on your mind. That never happened. And it waited until the 11th hour. And then we had some of my Republican opponents who basically, I think, recommended something that would have been catastrophic for this economy.

TAPPER: When S&P devalued the U.S. from AAA to AA-plus, one of the reasons, they said, was the dysfunction in Washington. They didn't have confidence in either side to come together to make a compromise to get the country on the right fiscal path.

But you, along with all of your Republican competitors, raised your hand and said that you would be unwilling to accept a deal of 10-to-1 spending cuts for tax increases. That would be if you just eliminated the Bush tax cuts for those who make more than $1 million a year, by one computation -- that would be $6 trillion in spending cuts. Aren't you buying into the same brinksmanship that you're criticizing?

HUNTSMAN: Jake, it was a nonsense question. And the fact that you can even ask a question that is that important with such profound implications for the United States, to answer by show of a raised hand, I mean, come on. What have -- you know, what have debates gotten to, in terms of how we discuss the truly important issues of the day? I don't think tax increases are good for this country right now. In fact, I think it'd be the worst thing that we can do.

TAPPER: So are you sorry you raised your hand for the, quote, "nonsense question"?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I'm just sorry that the debate resorted to a raising of hand as opposed to some discussion about where this country needs to go in terms of overall tax policy.

TAPPER: Last question, Governor. You're hovering at about 2 percent to 4 percent in national polls. When you entered the race in June, you said, quote, "Give us a month or two, and I think we'll be punching through." This interview notwithstanding, I don't know that you can say that you're punching through yet. How long can you consider yourself a viable candidate with that sort of support?