Here's a dramatic way we might break through the partisan gridlock and mutual demonization that dominate our politics these days: President Barack Obama, the top Democrat, should ditch his vice president, Joe Biden, and recruit a reasonable Western Republican -- Jon Meade Huntsman Jr. -- as a running mate.
As unlikely as it sounds, there's a Western model for such vigorous reaching across party lines: 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.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, who just announced he's abandoning the race for the Republican nomination for president, never moved up to the second rank in that crowded field because most primary voters were uncompromising partisan ideologues. But Huntsman was still the best-qualified candidate; he seemed to be the only one trying 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 as Obama's ambassador to China. 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., became wealthy running companies that produced chemicals and plastic containers for fast-food restaurants, and then gave away more than $1 billion to cancer research, universities and other causes.
Huntsman has a diverse record for a politician: He even dropped out of high school briefly to play in rock bands. Eventually, he earned an Ivy League degree in international politics and married Mary Kaye Cooper, an Episcopalian he'd met in high school; they 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's resume also includes becoming an Eagle Scout, riding motorcycles and learning to speak Mandarin, which he did during a two-year Mormon mission in Taiwan, then 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 Obama's. As governor, he backed the coal industry that generates Utah's electricity and sided with rural county governments that sought to control backcountry roads across federal land.
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 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 higher 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."
Unlike his opponents in the Republican primary, Huntsman said he accepts the science of climate change and evolution, and he assesses Obama as "a good man. He's earnest, but he has failed us on the most important issue of our day" -- the economy.
"It is unnatural to be as divided as we are as Americans," he told CNN. "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."
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. For Huntsman, the move would set him up for presidential campaign in 2016. For the country, it might just get our sense of community back on track.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman, Mont.
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