Jon Huntsman Jr. -- a pragmatic Westerner for the White House

 

For proof that Western politicians, at their best, have a pragmatic nonpartisan streak, check out the only one seriously trying to win the presidency in 2012: Jon Meade Huntsman Jr.

Not only is Huntsman the best-qualified candidate in the Republican primary, he's also seeking to revive fact-based, reasonable Republicanism.

As Utah's governor from 2005 to 2009, Huntsman worked across the aisle even though he didn't have to; he was re-elected in 2008 with more than 77 percent of the votes, including some quiet Democratic support. Then, in 2009, he outraged right-wingers by resigning to serve a Democratic president, becoming Obama's ambassador to China. There, "he turned heads by shunning motorcades, preferring instead to ride his bicycle and interact with the Chinese people," according to his website. He left that job -- which he calls "our (nation's) most difficult and combative relationship" -- effective April 2011 to run for president.

Huntsman was shaped by his Mormon family's dedication to hard work and public service. His father, Jon M. Huntsman Sr., served briefly in the Navy and the Reagan administration and became a billionaire running companies that produced chemicals and plastic containers for fast-food restaurants. He then gave away more than $1 billion to cancer research, universities and other causes.

Huntsman has an unusually diverse backgound for a politician: He dropped out of high school to play keyboard in rock bands and worked as a dishwasher. Eventually, he earned a degree in international politics at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, and married Mary Kaye Cooper, an Episcopalian he'd met in high school; they've been together about 30 years and have seven kids, including two who were adopted from China and India. As Huntsman told Newsweek: "I was raised a Mormon, Mary Kaye was raised Episcopalian, our kids have gone to Catholic school, I went to a Lutheran school growing up in Los Angeles. I have an adopted daughter from India who has a very distinct Hindu tradition, one that we would celebrate during Diwali. So you kind of bind all this together." Huntsman is also an Eagle Scout, rides motorcycles, plays jazz piano and speaks Mandarin, which he learned during a two-year Mormon mission in Taiwan and honed while serving both Bush administrations in Asian diplomacy.

Huntsman's record on environmental issues is mixed, which means it's better than those of his Republican opponents and roughly equivalent to President Obama's. As governor, he backed the coal industry, which generates Utah's electricity, and encouraged development of Utah's oil shale and natural gas. He also sided with rural county governments that sought to control roads across federal land, and opposed President Clinton's sweeping protection of roadless forest areas. On the other hand, he pushed for action on climate change, including caps on carbon emissions and initiatives for energy conservation and wind and solar power. He called off-road drivers who illegally damage the desert "an embarrassment" and told state agencies to crack down on them. He even vetoed a Sagebrush Rebellion bill that would've made it tougher for environmentalists to file lawsuits.

The pragmatic governor also helped loosen Utah's puritanical liquor laws, pushed for tighter ethical standards in politics, increased funding for public education (along with modest vouchers for kids in private schools), sought state funding for dental care for the poor, tried to secure legal status for undocumented immigrants, reformed Utah's health-care system to cover more poor kids, and broke with his church's position to endorse civil unions for gay people, which he calls an issue of "equality." He has experience in business, through stints in the family corporations, and in tax reform: He reduced Utah's top income-tax rate from 7 percent to 5 percent, eliminated many deductions and loopholes, and cut the sales tax on food, which helped poor people.

As CNN's Piers Morgan said to Huntsman in an August interview, "You're, as everyone knows, Mr. Nice Guy."

That niceness hasn't stopped him from criticizing his Republican opponents' wacky demagoguery and shameless pandering to the extreme right wing. Reacting to their rejection of climate science and evolution, Huntsman tweeted: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." (Although he later appeared to hedge on the issue in a speech to the libertarian Heritage Foundation, he has since stated, "There is no change. I put my faith and trust in science.") When his opponents were willing to let the U.S. default on the national debt, Huntsman called that "the height of irresponsibility." His three oldest daughters crooned in a music video: "The rest of them are one big circus act." (They're also known for edgy tweets about his campaign -- see @Jon2012girls.)

The former diplomat has been careful in his public assessments of Obama's presidency. Obama, he says, is "a good man. He's earnest, but he has failed us on the most important issue of our day" -- the economy. As president, Huntsman says, he would govern as he did in Utah, recommending "science-based" policies, federal tax reform and "shared sacrifice" with everyone getting less from Social Security. "It is unnatural to be as divided as we are as Americans," he told CNN's Morgan. "You've got to get out from our respective corners politically. And you've got to make a deal. You've got to make the country function."

Still, Huntsman remains a long shot in an extremely polarized race. Rather than compete in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, he's focusing on New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary. After traipsing around that state for months, he's crept up to low double-digits in the polls.

Here's one suggestion for a breakthrough: If Huntsman flops in the Republican primary, Obama should consider ditching his current vice president, Joe Biden, and recruiting the Utahn as his running mate. Obama and Huntsman disagree on many issues, of course; Huntsman opposes Obama's health-care reform, for instance, and supports abortion only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But the vice presidency is largely a symbolic office, and an Obama-Huntsman ticket would be a grand gesture embracing political moderation.

As unlikely as it sounds, there's a Western model for this: Montana's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, picked a Republican legislator, John Bohlinger, as his lieutenant governor in the 2004 and 2008 elections, and Schweitzer has become Montana's most popular and effective politician. An Obama-Huntsman ticket in 2012 could get the country's sense of community back on track, and set up Huntsman for a more successful presidential campaign in 2016.

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