Huntsman Urges Rethink of Republican Program

The former Utah governor warns that his party risks losing relevance unless it adjusts.

Former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman is interviewed in Lexington, Virginia, February 10
Former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman is interviewed in Lexington, Virginia, February 10 (Tom Wolff)

If Mitt Romney loses November’s election, the Republican Party risks falling into disarray. Even if he wins, the party will have to redefine the meaning of Republicanism if it is to keep its increasingly divergent constituencies united.

Thus predicted Jon Huntsman, former Republican presidential candidate, during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC earlier this month. “You got to project vision and some principles that some people hear and can sense are real and consistent with our time and place in history and we’re not there yet.”

Huntsman argued that conservatives should be particularly alarmed by demographic shifts that are unfavorable to them. “You have to stay consistent with demographic changes if you’re going to be a viable party,” he said.

More than 90 percent of black Americans consistently votes for Democrats. Among Hispanic Americans, there are more conservative voters but they are still in the minority and their bloc isn’t growing.

Hispanics voted two to one for Barack Obama in 2008 and three to two against George W. Bush in 2004. They comprised 7.4 percent of the electorate four years ago but 15 percent of the population. Both rates are expected to rise as a result of higher birth rates and immigration from Latin American countries.

Republicans could have an advantage in that Hispanic voters, many of them Catholics, are more socially conservative than other racial minorities but it’s the party’s very social conservatism that’s driving white middle class as well as young voters to the left.

Huntsman distanced himself from his party’s more uncompromising cultural views when he ran for the presidential nomination late last year. He supported civil unions for gay couples and argued that the party shouldn’t deny climate change. “The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem,” he told ABC’s This Week.

More than 80 percent of Americans believes that global warming is real. A slim majority is of the opinion that human activity contributes to it. More Americans now support gay marriage than don’t. An overwhelming 67 percent of Americans favored letting gays serve openly in the military. On all three issues, public opinion favors Democrats over Republicans. But Huntsman proved in Utah that seizing the center ground isn’t necessarily a losing position for Republicans.

When he left the governorship of what is the most conservative state in the union to become ambassador to China, Huntsman enjoyed an 80 percent approval rating, in spite of his advocacy for climate change legislation and support of gay rights. He vastly improved Utah’s business climate and schools. In both areas, he pursued conservative policies: cut taxes, cut regulations and pushed vouchers to give children from poor families the opportunity to study at private institutions.

Republican governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, whom The Wall Street Journal‘s Kimberley Strassel described as the “vanguard” of the conservative movement, are currently pursuing the very policies that Huntsman pioneered.

The same newspaper endorsed Jon Huntsman’s economic plan for the nation in September of last year, praising its proposed tax reforms and energy policy.

Huntsman’s supply-side orthodoxy is perfectly in sync with contemporary Republican rhetoric which, as Politico pointed out last month, “is dismissive of any positive role for government that makes the ‘compassionate conservative’ ideas of George W. Bush seem like a very distant echo.” His cultural liberalism, however, though acceptable to the party’s libertarian element, is anathema to the religious right which has set Republican social policy for a generation.

When Republicans start losing elections, social conservatives may be persuaded that they will have to moderate their expectations. It was, after all, the stalwart of the American conservative movement William F. Buckley who urged them to vote for the most conservative candidate — who could win. But as the moment seems to favor Republicans because of their economic and fiscal policies, it may take more than a single election defeat for them to pay serious attention to the likes of Jon Huntsman.