Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr. visits Dartmouth, speaks with the Review

Yesterday morning, former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman visited Dartmouth as part of the “Leading Voices in Politics and Policy” lecture series. Having announced his presidential candidacy for the 2012 election about a month ago, Governor Huntsman arrived yesterday in Hanover for what is sure to be his first of many visits to the Granite State this year, as the primary season approaches.

Before he spoke in the Moore Theater yesterday, I was fortunate enough to briefly interview Mr. Huntsman one-on-one. I initially asked him about the tight fiscal policy and deep tax cuts that he enacted during his term as Governor of Utah, and how he might replicate their success, if elected President of the United States, to reign in our ferocious budget deficit. Mr. Huntsman explained that as Governor of Utah, he simplified Utah’s tax code considerably, and also cut taxes by over $400 million, the largest tax cut in the state’s history. Remarkably, the state managed to run a budget surplus during the years that followed, and pursued an innovative approach to environmental sustainability when Governor Huntsman signed the Western Climate Initiative in 2007. He explained, “In Utah the big challenge was competitiveness. We wanted to make it an environment conducive to business growth. With our responsible fiscal policy, we were able to retain the entrepreneurs, retain the college graduates. Those people contributed to making Utah a competitive environment for business.”

It seemed to me that Mr. Huntsman’s success in generating a competitive business environment in Utah also informed his perception of the economic realities that characterize our relationship with China. “Our relations across the Pacific will determine our future,” he explained, “China is growing what will soon be the world’s largest middle class, and they will devour our exports as we currently do theirs.” Mr. Huntsman addressed some of the attitudes he’d encountered from Americans over the past two years in his capacity as Ambassador to China, saying “When people ask me to talk about China, it’s a climate of fear. They’re thinking about aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, military demonstrations, Tibet, Taiwan…but it should be a relationship of opportunity, not of fear.”

One of the subtexts that came through strongly from talking to the Governor was his open-mindedness, coupled with an equally genuine patriotism. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese himself, Mr. Huntsman encouraged the diffusion of Chinese language instruction in public schools during his tenure as Governor, and Utah boasted the highest number of high-schoolers in any state studying Chinese at the time. While living in Beijing as US Ambassador, Mr. Huntsman was acutely aware that many Chinese students strongly emphasize English fluency as the key to “cracking the American code.” By the same token, he suggested, “We have to be similarly prepared. 21st-century language learning exposes our youth to a foreign reality, a new way of conceiving of the world. And it is based on strategic importance.”

I continued by asking Mr. Huntsman about his impressions of President Obama, as well as the challenges associated with serving a President from an opposing political party. He immediately replied that “Working with Obama as Ambassador to China is public service, and thus inherently bipartisan, like General Petraeus reporting to Congress without bias, even though he’s Republican. I put country over party in any context, without question.” However, Mr. Huntsman did have some harsh words for the current President, whom he accused of “fundamentally failing us on job creation and the economy, the two most important issues of our generation.”

In the future, Governor Huntsman emphasized the primary role he believes China will continue to play in our foreign policy, saying “Going forward, our relationship with China, from both an economic and a national security position, will be the most profoundly influential diplomatic relationship we have.” He stressed, however, that we be “up front” about the issues on which we disagree with the Chinese government – the role of the internet in society, political reform, discounted Chinese currency, and human rights in particular – so as to infuse the “shared interests of our economic relationship” with the “shared values” of our society. Those values, he explained, are “the long-term glue that cements people together.”

Finally, Governor Huntsman explained that despite its potency, the benefits of a strong foreign policy are nevertheless insufficient to solve all of our domestic problems. “We are squandering the wealth of this country, of your generation. We need to balance our budget,” he remarked. “We are broken here at home, we have lost leverage in many of our international relationships. The best way to strengthen our relationship with China, among other nations, is to strengthen our core, get our house in order here in America.” He emphasized our critical need for energy independence, which he referred to as “the lowest of low hanging fruit,” due to the massive amount of untapped natural gas resources beneath our own soil. Huntsman employed equally memorable metaphors to articulate his other domestic policy recommendations, from his admonition to “get the regulatory monkey off our back” by enacting tax reform, to his support for deep spending cuts across the board. For these, he would allow “no sacred cow,” that is to say that upon formulating a federal budget, everything, from entitlements to our defense budget, would be scrutinized and reevaluated.

Huntsman noted in particular his belief that our presence in Libya and Afghanistan are contrary to our national interest. We embarked upon the former, he with no defined goal, national security interest, or exit strategy. Similarly, he continued, “In Afghanistan we have removed the Taliban and dismantled Al Qaeda. What we’re doing now is counter-terrorism, not nation-building. We need special forces, an intelligence presence, not 100,000 boots on the ground. We can’t wish for stability in a nation-state more than they do.”

Huntsman also noted that the diversion of crucial resources from our economy to these military engagements will also diminish our ability to address the “competitiveness challenges of the 21st century.” “Those battles,” according to Huntsman, “will not be fought in Libya or Afghanistan, but rather as a set of engagements across the Pacific Ocean.”

Huntsman’s foreign policy record speaks for itself, and his emphasis on the US’s role in international affairs -rather than singularly focusing on our domestic fiscal nightmare – was definitely a refreshing perspective for many in the audience. While brief, I think Huntsman’s visit to Dartmouth was positive. On the one hand, his audience was predisposed to be relatively sympathetic, particularly with the College’s emphasis on language-learning and study abroad programs among undergraduates. And yet, while Governor Huntsman was not asked certain difficult questions – about his Mormon faith, for instance – he definitely earned the generous applause he received at the end of his talk. In our interview, Governor Huntsman was quite friendly, and came off as both perceptive and articulate. Some still question how Huntsman will distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican field over the next few months, and that remains to be seen. However, the Review‘s summer President, Benjamin Riley, said today that he considers Huntsman to be “the most electable Republican candidate in the race,” and I believe that Mr. Riley is not alone in his opinion amongst the student body.

On behalf of the Review, I am grateful that I was able to speak personally with Mr. Huntsman, and I am intrigued to watch his campaign develop over the next few months. We at the Review, along with the rest of the student body, eagerly await the Republican Primary Debate being hosted at the College this October, and we look forward to seeing Mr. Huntsman again at that juncture.

–Georgia B. Travers