DISSATISFACTION WITH the economy, expressed in spasms of anger toward Wall Street and Washington; the dashed hopes of many who believed that Barack Obama’s election would create a new spirit of unity; and genuine uncertainty about Democratic health care reform - all of these have created an historic opportunity for the Republican Party. Just three years removed from a Republican administration that was roundly judged a failure, the party has a chance to renew itself - to blaze a path to bipartisan action on the budget, to introduce market-based solutions to health costs, and to construct a post-Iraq War network of alliances to promote global economic strength, knowing that true security comes from both peace and prosperity.
So far, Republican presidential contenders have shown little awareness of this opportunity. Far from promoting bipartisan unity, the GOP candidates have even abandoned Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” (“Though shalt not speak ill of another Republican”), shattering the party’s customary internal unity in an electric storm of name-calling and accusations. Rather than compare creative policy solutions, the candidates have vied for meaningless titles like “true conservative.’’ Rather than outline a vision for a safer world, they’ve signaled a return to Bush-era posturing and disdain for allies who don’t blindly serve American interests.
And yet the chance for renewal remains. Sour economic data and dysfunction in Washington present major obstacles to Obama’s reelection. Whoever gets the Republican nomination could easily become president. Among the candidates, only two stand out as truly presidential, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Both have track records of success, and both, through their policies and demeanors, have shown the breadth of spirit to lead the nation. But while Romney proceeds cautiously, strategically, trying to appease enough constituencies to get himself the nomination, Huntsman has been bold. Rather than merely sketch out policies, he articulates goals and ideals. The priorities he would set for the country, from leading the world in renewable energy to retooling education and immigration policies to help American high-tech industries, are far-sighted. He has stood up far more forcefully than Romney against those in his party who reject evolution and the science behind global warming.
With a strong record as governor of Utah and US ambassador to China, arguably the most important overseas diplomatic post, Huntsman’s credentials match those of anyone in the field. He would be the best candidate to seize this moment in GOP history, and the best-prepared to be president.
Huntsman governed Utah as a clear conservative who nonetheless put the interests of his state ahead of ideology. He delighted right-wing supporters by replacing a graduated state income tax with a flat tax. Strong economic growth put Utah in the top five in job creation during Huntsman’s tenure, while he gave tax credits to companies developing solar energy. He offered a sweeping school choice plan, and joined the Western Climate Initiative, which set goals for reducing greenhouse gases.
When the national economy fell into recession, some Republican governors made a show of rejecting federal stimulus money on ideological grounds; sensibly, Huntsman took the money. While he endorsed the notion of a federal stimulus, he also offered a credible critique of the way the Democratic Congress had structured the plan. Then, when Obama offered him the post of ambassador to China, Huntsman accepted. Other Republicans, such as New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, couldn’t bring themselves to accept entreaties from a Democratic president. Huntsman did. It attests to his sincerity when he vows to lead in a bipartisan spirit.
Serving as ambassador to China, the largest economic and military competitor to the United States, is a deeply meaningful credential. Notably, Huntsman’s nuanced foreign-policy vision of economic and strategic alliances stems from his time in Beijing. While other candidates point toward Cold War-style rejection and isolation of China, Huntsman promises deeper engagement. But he had the courage as ambassador to walk among protesters, drawing the ire of repressive Chinese authorities.
His wisdom on immigration also stands out. Though he reluctantly came to support a fence along the Mexican border, he avoids the demonization of illegal immigrants employed by Romney and some other candidates. And he smartly recognizes that border crackdowns aren’t the only immigration issues. He wants to expand visas for highly skilled, job-creating immigrants, a crucial step in preserving American technological dominance.
During the first three years of Romney’s term as governor, the former private-equity executive showed glimmers of the same qualities as Huntsman displayed. Romney’s administration was a scandal-free meritocracy. He took on the crony culture on Beacon Hill without creating unnecessary rancor. He was responsive and businesslike in dealing with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, leading to his signature achievement of near-universal health care.
Romney, of course, has taken pains to distance himself from much of his administration. Now, he campaigns in a way that gives little indication of the kind of president he would be. His attacks on Obama are so hyperbolic - the president favors European-style socialism, apologizes for America, doesn’t understand the vision of the Founding Fathers - that they say nothing about his own viewpoint; most likely, he’s trying to stir up enough dust to suggest a passionate denunciation of Obama without offering a disciplined critique or alternative course. When he vows to “get rid of ObamaCare” and trim programs like the National Endowment for the Arts he’s merely checking boxes on the GOP playlist. One has to look at his policy papers and speeches to try to glean a truer sense of his platform.
His detailed economic plan contains some good, if limited, ideas. One can imagine that he would be a hands-on steward of the national economy, with more than the usual presidential expertise. That counts for a lot, and is the core of Romney’s credibility. His foreign policy ideas, however, show none of the same wisdom. Backed by a team including many Bush-era hawks and neoconservatives, Romney offers bellicose language about Iran, forceful denunciations of Chinese currency manipulation, and unyielding - and entirely uncritical - support for Israel. At a time when most of Washington is inching toward bipartisan trims in defense spending, Romney is proposing an improbably ambitious expansion of the Navy.
Without personal experience to guide him, Romney is catering to the most vocal constituencies in the national-security wing of the GOP. As in other areas, such as his Robert Bork-led advisory panel on judicial policies, Romney’s ultimate intentions aren’t clear. Is this for real? Both his supporters and detractors suspect that behind the conservative scaffolding is a data-driven moderate who will make practical compromises. But the way Romney has run his campaign, it’s impossible to tell.
Nonetheless, there is a widespread belief that Romney’s campaign, like a well-designed corporate strategy, is bound for success. But even if Romney emerges as the nominee, it matters how he gets there. Already, the religious right, represented by Rick Santorum, and Tea Party activists, represented by Ron Paul, have pushed Romney in unwanted directions. In New Hampshire, Republican and independent voters have a chance, through Huntsman, to show him a sturdier model. Jon Huntsman would be a better president. But if he fails, he could still make Romney a better candidate.