Jon Huntsman, Jr., on Republican Politics, the U.S. Economy and China’s Transition

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According to Jon Huntsman, Jr., former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate, “partisanship has seeped into campaigning [so much] that breaking through with a message that is beyond party politics … is a very challenging thing to do.” Yet in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, he spoke about the importance of public service, as well as the need for fundamental tax and energy reform, the outlook for China in the coming decade, the role of the media in covering elections, his respect for Ronald Reagan and what he plans to do in the coming months.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below. Download the audio using the link at the top of the page or by visiting Knowledge@Wharton on iTunes.

Knowledge@Wharton: You had a very unique experience recently — running for president of the United States. You have gotten compliments from many people for the way you ran your campaign. The Economist called you a “thoughtful politician and a credible person, which would be faint praise if there were more of them around.” Another site said you emphasized “what would be good for the country rather than smiting the enemy. He was even nice to fellow Republicans,” which can’t be said about everyone. So what would you say you learned from our process of electing a president, and what would you change about that?

Jon Huntsman, Jr.: What I learned about our process is how divided it has become from a partisan standpoint. We’ve forgotten what it means to put country first. We’ve forgotten what it means to come together as Americans to solve problems that confront all of us. We have a tendency to park ourselves in our individual alleyways of life, as opposed to putting the car in reverse, backing out and reintroducing ourselves to somebody across the street like we used to, [someone who] might be of a different background, a different party affiliation, a different religion. The partisanship has seeped into campaigning such that breaking through with a message that is beyond party politics and beyond a red meat discussion, at least in the early stages of campaigning, is a very challenging thing to do.

Knowledge@Wharton: Knowing what you know now, would you [still have] run?

Huntsman: Absolutely. The positive part was first of all the honor and privilege of being able to run for the highest office in the land – to add to, and broaden the debate on, the issues facing our country. But also being reminded that there are a whole lot of people in these small communities and towns in the early primary states that still care deeply about their future, enough so that they turn out at events, they organize, they volunteer, all the things that Alexis de Tocqueville talked about in the 1830s. It’s very heartwarming to see that this is still alive and well in America. So you’ve got that fundamental foundation that we ought to be building on. And then you find that sense of divided partisanship which tends to make it impossible to punch through on the issues that really matter.

Knowledge@Wharton: From interviews you’ve given as recently as this week, it sounds like you feel the Republican party in its current state is, a word you use, “unsustainable”. You’ve also said that the fastest growing party in this country is the unaffiliated party. So given these two statements, would you consider running as a third party candidate?

Huntsman: I’m not considering any run at all. After you go through this once, there’s a cooling off period. You don’t want to think about anything beyond the here and now, and that’s readjusting your private life. But the point being, because of the mood of the electorate, the American people and the advent of communication and networking technology, a third party movement is going to be very viable at some point. The means by which you can disseminate a message, you can organize and fundraise, is there. It just hasn’t been harnessed around politics yet. It’s still a little bit premature. So you’ve got the duopoly that continues. And for a duopoly to stay in business, a duopoly of any kind, it must be relevant, it must be at the cutting edge in terms of providing vision and ideas, certainly in politics. If you’re not there with a big tent approach that brings in people as opposed to move them out, you have a hard time surviving longer term.

Knowledge@Wharton: If Romney is elected, would you consider any role in his administration, such as secretary of state?

Huntsman: It’s unlikely. It’s all hypothetical. So it’s dangerous even to speculate about that. But I’ve always made it a point to put country first. If there is an area of public service where you can get in and help your country in a unique way, I’ve always felt it was important and good to step up and do that. And I’ll always have that outlook.

Knowledge@Wharton: I mentioned secretary of state because of your experience as ambassador to China, ambassador to Singapore. You were the deputy U.S. trade rep among other credentials. So if we could just speak about China for a moment. Despite a few recent hiccups that we’ve all noticed, do you feel it’s still the engine of growth for the 21st century?

Huntsman: As the second largest economy in the world and with purchasing power that is on the rise because of the expansion of its consumer class, it will be a formidable economy going forward. It remains really one of the few engines of growth today, although that engine is going to run out of a little bit of steam. And as it does, we have an opportunity to win back some of our manufacturing ability, because manufacturing will continue. They’ll want to be in some safe harbor market where they can invest and do their thing. But China will remain an engine of growth for this foreseeable future.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s about to undergo, as you know, a major change in government as President Hu steps down and the current vice president Xi steps up. Do you think the new government will allow a more competitive and entrepreneurial free market environment, or just the opposite?

Huntsman: While it’s slow going today, mostly because of domestic politics and the run up to the 18th party Congress in October, you’ll likely see that change in the years ahead because they’ll have no choice. They’ll be pushed not only from the outside — those who wish to see more liberalization economically within China — but maybe even more importantly they’ll be pushed from within by their rapidly-expanding entrepreneurial class, who want world class standards, who want global reach, who want everything that we’ve been able to achieve here in our economy in the United States. They know in order to do that, China will have to step up its pace on protecting intellectual property rights and on basic market opening measures.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think are the most serious internal issues that they face? There’s the growing gap between the rural areas and the urban areas. There’s the internal dissent that they’re facing. One of The Wall Street Journal’s front page stories today is on another crack down on people using social media to share their opinions, including their opinion about the latest scandal that they’re facing. So what is it that they really need to deal with most domestically?

Huntsman: A little bit like our situation here — jobs and economic growth. Because with jobs and economic growth, they’re able to put people to work. When people don’t have jobs, and unemployment gets beyond a certain level, that’s when you see domestic instability. Domestic instability then gets to the heart and soul of the legitimacy of the communist party of China. Once the legitimacy of the party is called into question, their days could be numbered.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about our economy? Republicans are very focused on cutting taxes, cutting the deficit, cutting regulations, even though some people feel that lax regulations are what led to the financial crisis. What’s your plan for the economy?

Huntsman: Well, the first thing you have to do is send a message of confidence and believability to the investors and to the creative class, the entrepreneurs. We haven’t done that yet as a country. I think the first step in at least beginning to telegraph that message is fundamental tax reform. You’ve got to take this outdated, dilapidated, anachronistic tax code and you’ve got to update it. You’ve got to clear out the $1 trillion, $100 billion in loop holes that have so weighted it down for special interest groups, primarily. That has become a drag on our economy’s performance. That would be the first step.

The second step would be to look at an energy policy that would A) bring out our ability to become energy independent, which we all know we can do, and B) begin working more with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, forging a regional energy independence policy. And C), we need to identify natural gas as probably the best bridge product we have until such time as we can draw more from the sun and wind, which will happen eventually. We’re just not there yet from a technology standpoint.

Knowledge@Wharton: How about jobs? Specifically, what could be done to help create more jobs for especially the young people in this country?

Huntsman: The natural gas revolution has already created some say upwards of a million jobs. I think that’s just the beginning. So you have to look at job creation coming from a sense of confidence, where investors get the signal. They get the telegraphed message that we’re on the move; we are beginning to improve our fundamentals, which gives the confidence they need to go into the marketplace and begin to hire. So that package, I think, would be sufficient to at least get companies to begin the hiring process.

Knowledge@Wharton: You and others have mentioned that we’re experiencing a manufacturing renaissance in this country. In fact, the latest first quarter results that were released today show higher profits for 3M, Caterpillar, United Technologies and others. If so, what can be done to encourage and sustain this renaissance?

Huntsman: First of all, we have to recognize that we have an historic opening here. This doesn’t happen all the time. It’s because of the macro economic overlay that we’ve been given a gift. We either recognize the opening we’ve got as a country, or not. If we recognize it, then you say, “We’ve got to figure out how we can telegraph to the market that we’re open for investment.” So how do you attract capital? Because capital is a coward and it will flee wherever it perceives there to be risk in the market and find a safe haven somewhere. We need to become the safe haven.

As I tried to do as governor of Utah, I wanted to make our state a safe haven for the attraction of capital. That’s going to take tax reform. It’s going to take a look at our regulatory regime. It’s going to take a look at the repatriation of overseas profits, giving them an opportunity to come home for reinvestment purposes. It’s going to take a widespread effort with all the states in America, all the governors, state legislatures, to begin to retool ourselves in the form of job training and vocational skill development. We used to do that very well in the old days, but we’ve lost our connection with it. That’s got to be a critically important part of preparing for whatever manufacturing renaissance is on the horizon.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s your reaction to the continual log jams in the U.S. Congress these days? Nothing gets done. It’s not just Democrats against Republicans, it’s as you know, Republicans against Republicans, etc. How can you run a country like that?

Huntsman: You can’t. And our inability, basically, to put forward a budget after three cycles is evidence of that. I think, in large part, it’s because the middle has been blown out of our political system. The people on the right and left who would give the middle the hand-off on legislation, the middle would then grind it into something that was doable and move the work of the people forword. They’re no longer there. The Olympia Snowes, the Evan Bahys, the people who basically occupy a lot of the middle ground where the work really gets done. And so you’ve got right and left with their backs against the wall pointing fingers of blame at each other, engaged in this hyperbolic political rhetoric. And all the while the work of the people isn’t getting done.

So I can’t help but think because of that, and because of the fact that I’m sure most Americans are reaching the 212 degree boiling point, that the demands of the American people will [be heard] by the candidates for higher office in the next election cycle or two — as opposed to the Tea Party debt concerns, which I think are still very valid. [The issue is:] Are you going to be able to get the work of the people done? Are you willing to work across the aisle with people not of your party? That’s got to come from the American people, and they must insist that the people they elect actually focus on getting the work of the people done.

To date, the message has been, don’t collaborate, don’t compromise, stymie the system. And that’s exactly what we have. Well, the American people are going to have to reverse that, and they’re going to have to say, “But we still need to get the work of our nation done or we’re going to fall behind.” That must be expressed at the ballot box in order for it to work right.

Knowledge@Wharton: Switching subjects here. Now that Romney is, I think most people would agree, the Republican nominee, can we put aside Mormonism as an issue in this election? Or do you think it might still be a polarizing concern among some voters? Your approach to this seems to be grounded in a more worldly, more inclusive attitude. Given that, could this mean that Mormonism would evolve in the next few years into a broader based, more mainstream religion that can adapt to a multicultural society?

Huntsman: It will be an issue to some extent, although I think four years ago, many got it out of their system. But Mormonism remains a curiosity, and it remains a curiosity because it’s been a fairly closed religion. That means it’s going to have to open up and become more mainstream. And as it does, people will begin to understand more about it, and they’ll be able to put things in perspective. I think that all comes in time. So there will be debate and discussion about Mormonism, but I don’t think in the end it will turn the tide one way or the other.

Knowledge@Wharton: As a person who has been extensively covered by the media, do you think that it does a good job covering elections? I know you experienced their presence earlier this week. And I’m wondering if you feel that maybe the media is too reliant on sound bites rather than analyses or too quick to jump on the easy stories rather than the more in depth ones?

Huntsman: The horserace and the drama of politics are always a whole lot easier to cover than the ideas and the substance. So you can give a speech on your world view or foreign policy, lay it all out in great detail. And then walk out of the building in which you gave the speech and make some comment about one of your opponents — and that will make the headline. You know? “Huntsman slams Romney.” You won’t read a thing about what was laid out in terms of your foreign policy world view, which is, I think, unfair to the American people. I think they’re getting too much drama and too little substance. The idea flow is limited, which then does not encourage candidates to go out there and participate in the debate of ideas.

It becomes partisan, it becomes based on tearing the other person down, personality politics as opposed to thinking of the big ideas, because that’s what’s covered. The substance isn’t always covered.

Knowledge@Wharton: So how could you change that? How can you encourage a more substantive debate, especially given the fact that our society is more and more inclined towards very short messages, short attention spans, truncated conversation?

Huntsman: I’m not optimistic on this front because the media must move content. In order to move content, you’re going to write up more of the salacious aspects of politics as opposed to the substantive aspects of politics. Moving content is about profitability. These outlets need to be profitable, and so you move the content, you move it not once a day but five times a day, and you look for a candidate to trip up or mangle a paragraph and then you’ve got a story. That moves content, but it also will ensure that candidates will be anything other than candid as they run. They’ll be more scripted. They’ll be less accessible because they don’t want to make a mistake. And that’s not a good trend. The American people deserve better than that.

Knowledge@Wharton: I know you sit on some boards, including a new seat on Caterpillar and other positions. What will you be doing in the coming months and the next couple years?

Huntsman: Reconnecting with my kids. Serving on some corporate boards. Doing some corporate work broadly. Chairing a cancer institute. Speaking a bit, lecturing here and there. Chairing a cyber security national commission on what that all means and what we ought to be doing about it as a country. And a few other interesting proposals that have come my way. We’re still sorting through it all.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you were growing up or even now, are there any people that you would say were your heroes or served as mentors to you?

Huntsman: My dad was a real mentor growing up. He and other members of my family served in the military. They were the quintessential public servants in that they didn’t have a lot; they didn’t grow up in a family of wealthy people. Our family business did well over time, but the Huntsman family were school teachers, they were volunteers, they served in the military and I was always very inspired by that attitude. What made them happy, what they were most proud of always left an indelible impression in my mind about the importance of giving back, public service and all of that. So consequently I have two boys serving in the military. So that was always an inspirational thing for me.

And then along my political journey, I’d have to say that working for Ronald Reagan as a young man was an inspiring thing because as an advance man, I got to see him up close and in circumstances where you’re able to see a president behind closed doors and then out in the public arena. I was always impressed by his consistency, his willingness to represent and embody the best of the American traditions, his sense of optimism, his can-do attitude, his ability to want to think in terms of big, bold steps. I think we’ve lost a little bit of that, and I hope we regain it.

Knowledge@Wharton: So it sounds like you would go back to Reagan as an example of the way a president should act?

Huntsman: I see a lot of presidents who have been remembered in history for bold and courageous moves. I mean I’d have to say I’m a Republican because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and he believed in the worth and dignity of the individual. He changed our nation because of that. And so where some in my party might not agree with me on things like civil unions, I say, “Well, if Abraham Lincoln were around today, I think he would be arguing for equality of the law. I think that’s an American principle.”

I look at Theodore Roosevelt, another bold, courageous Republican who sent forth the great white fleet, reminding the world that we were a peaceful nation but ready to defend our ideals, our values and our interests and had the means by which to do it. He also loved the land, and I think got the part about the sense of humanity that we’re passing down to the next generation. It’s the air we breathe, it’s the land we share, it’s our values and the way in which we treat each other.

Eisenhower, he was a Republican too. He built our infrastructure. In some circles, you can’t even talk about infrastructure today without people thinking that it’s another government bailout. But I don’t know how you compete in the 21st century without having adequate infrastructure.

And even Nixon — the bold stroke of going to China. In today’s world, can you imagine a president of the United States landing in a country we were practically at war with in the middle of a cultural revolution? It’s just unthinkable. So, you have these big, bold strokes. They just don’t occur anymore in politics. I think we’re diminished a bit by it as a people.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned civil unions. I know that you have come out in favor of civil unions. Do you feel that is a divisive issue in this society, even though I think the latest poll shows that the majority of Americans favor, at the very least, civil unions and that kind of equality. Do you think this is going to continue to be divisive or will it move on into mainstream acceptance?

Huntsman: I think it will move into the mainstream. I think it will be less and less divisive. And I hope it’s less and less divisive. That seems to be the trend. I hope that people spend their energy and their firepower, politically speaking, more and more on solving our financial issues in this country. We don’t have much to argue or debate if we can’t pay the bills and if we can’t somehow take care of the debt that we’re carrying today. So that would be the priority before the American people whether you’re Republican or Democrat or Independent. You have to recognize that the debt overhang that we’re carrying impacts our competitiveness, and is going to impact the next generation and their ability to get back on their feet. That’s got to be addressed.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you instill in your children, or how does one instill in their children, a sense of public service, a sense of commitment to improving their community, whether that’s the local level, state level, the global level? How do you teach children that?

Huntsman: By doing it.

Knowledge@Wharton: By being a role model?

Huntsman: By doing it and by being a role model. Ours is still a work in progress, obviously. We’re raising our kids. We have two little adopted girls. But we’ve always stressed with our kids the importance of giving back, serving something bigger than yourself, whether your local community or your national community or the world.

With our two boys who are dedicating what will be a good part of their careers to serving their nation in uniform – it didn’t dawn on them just recently to do that. They were raised with an ethos of recognizing public service, serving in uniform, being a teacher, an educator — [seeing these careers] as being among the highest callings possible in life. So if you’re raised with that mindset and you’re old enough then to make those decisions, chances are that will become a priority in your life.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did your adoption of your two daughters come about?

Huntsman: I’ve lived in Asia four times; the second time I was in Taiwan with Mary Kaye in the 1980s. She volunteered at the local Catholic orphanage and fell in love with these little girls with no homes, no future, no place to go. I remember her coming home one night and saying, “We ought to bring one of these little girls into our family.” And I dismissed it, selfishly, arguing that we had our own kids to raise, let’s make sure that they’re productive, contributing members of society, and then maybe revisit it. We revisited the whole idea many years later and ended up, because our life had taken us to Asia, adopting a little girl from an orphanage there. Gracie so transformed our family from a positive standpoint, and our kids in terms of broadening their own world view, that we ended up doing it again…. I’d just been elected governor and we thought, you know, life has taken us to China for a very long time, and to India, both, they’ve both been influences of sorts. And so our second adoption was from India.

Knowledge@Wharton: Getting back to China for a moment: The U.S., along with everyone else, has been closely following this corruption investigation of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing, who was dismissed last month, as you know, amid charges of corruption. His wife is now under investigation regarding the apparent murder of the British business man Neil Haywood. The news articles that are coming out – and there’s been extensive coverage of this in the major American newspapers – are suggesting that Bo’s fall is a power struggle between competing factions in the party elite, or perhaps a clash over leadership style, since he had a very different [approach to] leadership than many of those in the government. How do you read this?

Huntsman: I think it’s less over ideology and more about the rise of a popular charismatic figure who built up some animosity within the ranks of the party because of the way he conducted a very open and public campaign for a seat on the standing committee of the Politburo. I think that all came down very quickly when one of his deputies defected to the U.S. consulate in Jaingdu and presented such compelling evidence that the party leadership just couldn’t stand behind him [any longer]. I think that did him in. So a combination of detractors who couldn’t have brought him down otherwise, and a flamboyant, charismatic, high profile operator. That’s not the way it’s done in a closed Leninist society. By being out there, he had a lot of detractors. They couldn’t do anything without the charges, but once the charges were in hand, he was done.

So I think it’s less over the ideological divide. I’ve heard that argument but I don’t see a whole lot of evidence supporting it. I think it was more about politics. They can get pretty rough in China.

Knowledge@Wharton: My last question to you: What did you learn about yourself during your presidential campaign?

Huntsman: What did I learn about myself? I’d have to say first of all I learned how much you can get done in a day that you never thought possible. You work long days as governor, you work long days as an ambassador to China, but you really put in an extraordinary amount of effort on the presidential campaign trail. I learned how fragile a run for president can be in the sense that it’s a high wire act. You look at most campaigns: They’re sturdy and loaded with advisors and this and that, but it’s really a high wire act of sorts. Every day you’re in front of the cameras, every day you’re asked questions about your vision for a better tomorrow. I was surprised at just how open and exposed you are as a candidate and how free wheeling it is. How you can really turn the debate in any particular direction by what you choose to focus on. I had little appreciation for that, how one person just deciding to get in a race like the presidency could really help to shape the nation’s debate. I found that to be something that was surprising, the extent to which you could actually participate and shape a debate.

I was surprised at the goodness of the American people who still really care about their local communities and their country, and who turn out, who participate. They don’t have to; nobody’s forcing them. But they care enough about what lies ahead to be willing to come out and do what they do. I found that to be altogether encouraging when you look at and analyze the system.

Knowledge@Wharton: So it sounds like you’re a seasoned candidate and maybe we’ll see you again on the campaign trail.

Huntsman: Well, you never know. You know, you get through your first go at it and you look back and say, “Boy, I learned a lot.” You really do, you learn a lot about yourself and about the system. Very few people make it their first go at it. Most say, “I’m never going to do that again. That was too traumatic,” or, “It was such a tremendous cost on self and family.” And I think other people probably say, “I learned a lot. I’m going to be better next time.” I don’t know where I fall.

Knowledge@Wharton: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Huntsman: Sure, it’s a pleasure.

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