A Westerner too reasonable for the White House?


Why would a two-term former governor of Utah, the third most conservative state in the Union, be viewed as too liberal for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?

In the state's legislature, Republicans in the House outnumber Democrats 2-1. Its Senate is even more lopsided, with a 3-1 ratio.

Yet despite former governor Jon Huntsman Jr.'s popularity in this deep red state (as governor he banked a 84 percent approval rating in 2009, just before he left office), those examining his 2012 presidential exploration say he lacks conservative credibility. This appears to be less because he's a liberal, and more because he's a peacemaker who prioritizes dealmaking over polemics.

Huntsman won the 2004

and 2008 governor's races in Utah, before the fluent Mandarin-speaker was tapped by President Obama to become ambassador to China in August 2009.

Huntsman's a bit of a worldly Utahn, although he gained his interest in international affairs through an experience common to many Mormons: a two-year stint as a missionary in China when he was 19. During the Reagan administration he served as a diplomat in Singapore and has lived in several Asian countries.

That experience carries into his management and political style, says University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless, who’s been closely watching Utah political wrangling for 30 years.

Jon Huntsman…will self identity as a good manager, problem solver, looking for consensus. That's what good diplomats do. He's looking for an approach where he can walk out of the room and people feel good. That's not an approach that's going to endear him to the Tea Party people. And the Tea Party people are the ones who are the loud ones right now.

Huntsman's conservative resume runs seems to qualify him as a standard Republican. He's churchgoing, although lately he's been working to distance himself a bit from the Mormon weird factor, and is generally more of a fiscal conservative than a social one. As governor, he balanced the state's budget with aplomb. He worked hard to attract businesses to a state historically weak in industry. And he reformed the state's tax code and lowered taxes, which helped businesses.

In a piece on CNN.com called "Why Democrats don't want Huntsman to run," political columnist John P. Avlon laid out a good case for Huntsman being perhaps a perfect party uniter.

Successful Republican nominees have been able to unite the three dominant factions of the GOP: national security conservatives, Wall Street and the religious right. Huntsman has shown credible signs of being able to court all three.

Yet in today's squawk-littered political field, Huntsman's reasonable nature (his 2004 gubernatorial race was one of the most civil in the state's recent history, says Chambless) may be his undoing.

The former governor is on the record as seeing climate change as a real threat. He participated in the Western Climate Initiative, receiving a lot of flack from Utahns for that action. (Lately he's been distancing himself from that move, too.) Despite some political backpedaling, a recent interview with Time Magazine quotes him being rational as usual:

You also believe in climate change, right?

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I'm not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we'd listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it's better left to the science community – though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

He also takes pollution seriously. The Salt Lake Valley is known for bad air quality days rivaling Los Angeles'; he got the state to fund a study on the health and related costs of such pollution. In 2008, he worked with the state's legislature to direct $2 million to help Utah meet federal air quality regulations. And in a move that irked his home state's legislators, the former governor also attempted to negotiate land swaps with the federal government, says Chambless (that didn't get very far).

It's not that Huntsman's an environmentalist posing as a conservative, Chambless adds. It's just that his common-sense, managerial approach to problem solving and governing aims to address problems by including reasonable points of view and coming to a consensus that works.

The state's current governor, Gary Herbert, also bucked up Huntsman's bona fides, assuring the Associate Press: "He cut taxes and reformed the code. A lot of people wish we had more conservatives like that."

So if Huntsman runs (and he took Memorial Day weekend to have a family meeting on the prospect) it may come down to how much influence the "loud ones" end up wielding in the primaries.

And if 2012 doesn't materialize, Chambless thinks 2016 may just be Huntsman's golden year.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

Huntsman photo courtesy World Economic Forum