JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, an interview with Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, the second in our series of conversations with the contenders seeking to take on President Obama in next year’s election.
Huntsman is 51, from a prominent Utah family. He worked in the family chemical business and for three Republican presidents, before serving as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009. He was appointed ambassador to China by President Obama, and held that post until last April. He announced his candidacy two months later.
I met with Huntsman earlier today in Washington.
Gov. Huntsman, welcome.
JON HUNTSMAN, R-Utah presidential candidate: Pleasure to be with you.
JEFFREY BROWN: A line that you’ve been repeating recently is that the U.S. is a center-right nation. Now, does that define you as a candidate, and it – and what does that mean?
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, I think it, in a sense, does. We have always found solutions to our problems right about at that end of the political scale. We’re a pragmatic, problem-solving people. I like to think that we’re bringing to the forefront an approach that is that of a conservative problem-solver, someone who as governor created the most competitive environment for business and job creation.
We went about health care reform very practically and pragmatically without a mandate, with a free-market approach to closing the gap on the uninsured. So if you look at our track record, whether it’s as governor or it’s work overseas – I’ve lived overseas four times, a couple of times as ambassador – it’s as a practical, pragmatic conservative problem-solver. And I believe that’s consistent with where this country is politically.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, on the main issue of the day, the economy, jobs, you have talked about reforming the tax code – a flat or a flatter tax.
JON HUNTSMAN: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Does that mean that you oppose, or would you like to end the progressive tax code that we have?
JON HUNTSMAN: I think that what we have is dated. I think 17,000 pages that make up our tax code make it a little top-heavy and a little unpredictable for a lot of people longer-term, particularly on the business side.
I would like to do what we did in the state of Utah, which is: phasing out the deductions; phasing out the loopholes; phasing out corporate welfare, the biases that are inherent at this very top-heavy tax code; buying down the rate in a revenue-neutral fashion, broadening the base and leaving the tax code a whole lot more competitive for the 21st century.
JEFFREY BROWN: But does broadening the base bring lower-end lower-wage earners into paying taxes, many who don’t today? And does it end the, as I said, the progressive nature of our tax code, or does it change it so that lower-wage earners pay more in taxes and upper-end come down?
JON HUNTSMAN: You – it – it would change elements of the tax code to that end. It would bring more people into the tax code who would then become taxpayers. You could bring that in gradually. I mean, there could be a progressive approach to bringing a certain segment of the population in. But basically, it does – it lowers the rate, flattens the rate, and I think leaves it a whole lot more competitive for where this country needs to be in the future.
JEFFREY BROWN: Competitive but fair. I mean, one of the things people would say is, the nature of our tax code has benefited those lower-wage earners.
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, the tax code going forward has got to benefit everyone in this country. One of our problems is, we’re not attracting investment, we’re not necessarily attracting brain power, we’re not expanding our economic foundation because our tax code is not up-to-date. It isn’t competitive. And I believe if we’re going to help everybody and bring more people the opportunity that this country traditionally has, we got to have a different tax code. It just can’t continue on as it is.
So I look at the options out there, and I think, you know, you can phase out the deductions and the loopholes and the biases, and you can use that revenue to buy down the rate. And I say that because that’s where I’ve been, and that’s what we did in our state. And I think it is applicable here at the national level. And that’s the conversation I would like to have with the people of this country.
JEFFREY BROWN: One specific current issue is the question of the extension of the payroll tax cuts. Now, these cuts were made last year to try to get more money into the pockets of working people. They – they’re due to end in January, and there is a question of whether they should be extended. A number of Republicans have suggested that that’s not a priority. What – where do you come down?
JON HUNTSMAN: I think the payroll tax cut is a good thing. I think it helps a whole lot of people, and I think it’s something that would serve to stimulate this economy going forward. So it’s something I would –
JEFFREY BROWN: So it should be extended.
JON HUNTSMAN: I would consider extending it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another on the tax issue – the investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett has written recently of how those at the very, very high end can and should pay more in taxes. Is he right?
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, I would say that there’s going to have to be a shared sacrifice in this country. And I think that people at all levels are going to have to step up, whether it’s recognizing that Medicare is going to be done a little differently; Social Security is going to be done a little differently. And as president, I wouldn’t hesitate to call on sacrifice from all of our people, even those at the very highest end of the income spectrum. I think there’s –
JEFFREY BROWN: Higher taxes for those at the highest –
JON HUNTSMAN: There’s – there is – well, I’m not saying – (chuckles) – higher taxes. I’m saying that there are contributions that they can make, too. And as president, when you look at the full spectrum of options at where this country is and what we need to deliver – a truly competitive economy for our people – we’re going to have to ask for sacrifice. And I’m not going to hesitate to do that.
JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean, though, specifically?
JON HUNTSMAN: (Chuckles) Over time, we’re going to figure that out. But I’m not going to give a one-size-fits-all scenario there. I know that there are people who can give, perhaps, more than others maybe as it relates to the means testing around Social Security and Medicare – people who don’t need these programs. And I think we need to look realistically at where we are, where our vulnerable spots are, where our vulnerable populations are, recognize that for what it is and recognize those populations that don’t need these programs, and make some choices around that.
JEFFREY BROWN: On the foreign policy front, as we sit here today, rebels in Libya have taken Tripoli. Moammar Gadhafi is on the run, and it looks as though his long dictatorship is over. Now, you opposed originally President Obama’s decision to intervene – or working with NATO. Were you, in retrospect, wrong about that?
JON HUNTSMAN: I don’t think so. (Chuckles.) I don’t – I cheer on the rebels. I don’t yet know what that means in terms of leadership going forward. I don’t know what it means in terms of respecting human rights. Although with the National Transition Authority, I heard some of the right language. But there are a lot of question marks, still, about how this is going to play out: what it means to the people of Libya; what it means to the economy and regional stability longer term.
So my original premise was based on Libya not being a core U.S. national security interest. And I maintain that view today. Although I cheer on the rebels, and I think it’s terrific, Tunisia and Egypt kind of did it on their own. They didn’t need the United States to move those transitions forward. I think the same is true in Libya. We applaud the rebels, but I have to tell you, the future of the United States is not tied to Libya – and it’s not tied to Afghanistan, and it’s not tied to Iraq.
I hate to – (chuckles) – I hate to inform you, it’s really tied to whether or not this country is up for the competitive challenges of the 21st century. And that’s an economic battle that’s going to play out across the Pacific Ocean more than anything else.
JEFFREY BROWN: But as we watch all of these things unfold – the so-called Arab spring, now Libya; a lot of hard decisions about when and whether to intervene – do you have – have you developed a – an idea of when and when not to intervene?
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, you have to look it on a case-by-case basis. In the case of Libya, I have a hard time making the claim that it is in our core national security interest. In the case of Syria, I think that is more in our interest, simply because of the proximity of Israel and because of the proxy battle that is now playing out among some of the regional players, including Iran, and what it could mean longer term. So there’s a different dynamic playing out in Syria than there is Libya. And I think we have to look at each of those situations and make hard decisions based upon the unique and individual circumstances.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, let me ask you about the tough fight you’re in right now. You sent out that recent tweet about supporting evolution and the science of global warming. You wrote “Call me crazy.”
JON HUNTSMAN: (Chuckles.)
JEFFREY BROWN: And then you also said recently that, quote, “The minute the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem.” The question is, do you believe that the Republican Party is moving in the wrong direction for the American people as a whole?
JON HUNTSMAN: I believe that the Republican Party is still a centered party, although I do believe that there are many who have left the Republican Party who are now independents. If you look at that “big tent” that I remember seeing when I worked for President Reagan many years ago, it was in fact a big-tent party, and I think we have to return to that big-tent approach; that’s the only way that you can win elections. You can’t win elections with five percent here or 15 percent there. You’ve got to establish a big-tent approach. That’s the realist speaking in me. And I would tell you that I believe that on some issues we’ve gone too far to the right. And I believe that we’ve got to be more common sense oriented. We’ve got to be focused on solutions. We’ve got to be a party of solutions and big ideas. That’s how we’re going to attract people, and that’s ultimately how we’re going to win elections.
JEFFREY BROWN: So does the realist in you suggest – tell you that – these jibes were aimed at Gov. Perry in particular or Michele Bachmann. You’ve suggested that they may be unelectable. Is that what the realist in you tells you?
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, I was – (chuckles) – I was – I was answering questions about a response on Ben Bernanke being treasonous, which I think was inappropriate, and I think it was not based on the reality of the situation. Nor do I think it is reflective of the kind of person that people would look to seriously as a presidential candidate. And when people talk about $2 gas prices, that just simply is not reflecting the reality of the marketplace.
So when asked about these questions, I’m just going to give an answer that I think reflects reality. That’s the world I live. And I try to – I try to see these things based upon the real world and where we are and what it means in terms of the real-world application of certain decisions. That’s why I stood alone on that stage on the debt ceiling debate, when every single one of my competitors was basically saying let the nation default. I stood and said 25 percent of the world’s GDP can’t default; it would so disrupt the marketplace. We still set the rhythm for the international financial marketplace. You can’t default for the first time ever in the history of our country. You’ve got to find a solution that allows us to keep going, allows the marketplace to remain predictable and safe and not destroy people’s 401(k)s and their retirement programs through the idea that we can just kind of let the country go off a cliff and default.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that set you apart, and yet you have had – you still seem to be having a hard time breaking through. Polls show you still way down there. So is there a point at which you decide, hey, this is a quixotic mission, maybe look to the next – the next – 2016 and say, OK, not this time?
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, I’ve been called crazy, never quixotic. We’ll take it for what it is, realizing that we’re coming out of August. People aren’t paying attention to the race. A lot of the insiders are, but Labor Day is kind of when people begin to focus on the race. I like our position as we move into September, October, November; because in the end, the Republican Party, I believe, is going to want to nominate someone who can go the distance, someone who can be electable, someone who brings real-world solutions to the problems that we have; someone, I believe, who can bring the numbers together that actually spells victory. You’re going to have to be able to cross traditional boundaries. You’re going to have to win over some independents in order to get the numbers, in order to make the math work. And as people increasingly look at the field of players, I think they’re going to come to the conclusion that we may be one of – if not the only one – who basically can put the numbers together to actually win in 2012.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. A last, sort of, who-is-Jon-Huntsman question – I note that you ride and race motorcycles. I see that you like bungee jumping. I’ve read that you wanted to be a rock-and-roll star at one point in your life. You sit here and you come off as a sort of polished, calm fellow, rather reserved. Is there a – is there a wild and crazy Jon Huntsman in there somewhere?
JON HUNTSMAN: Now you’re calling me quixotic again, I take it. (Laughter.) But I think that I’m a – I’m a person full of life. And the bungee jumping part isn’t real. I simply likened announcing for the presidency to what must feel like bungee jumping in terms of the sheer exhilaration.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, no bungee jumping, huh?
JON HUNTSMAN: But the rest of it is absolutely correct. But most importantly, I’m a father of seven kids, and I think I see the world very realistically through their eyes and the world – the country that they’re about to inherit being less good, less productive and less competitive than any other that we’ve handed down in history. For the first time, we’re not handing upward in terms of our standards; we’re handing downward. And I think that is bad news for the next generation. And that means we all ought to do everything we can to ensure that we hand down a better nation in terms of the debt situation, our position in the world, our level of confidence, our being able to come together as people. It is totally unnatural in this country to be as divided as we are. We’re a blue-sky, optimistic bunch of people. We like to pull together during times of need, and we’re divided today. That hurts. That pains a lot of people, and we’ve got to figure out how we can unite as a nation.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, thanks very much.
JON HUNTSMAN: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: All of my conversation with Jon Huntsman is on our website, as is Judy Woodruff’s interview last month with another candidate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
And we will talk with other GOP contenders in the coming months.