7 Questions with Jon Huntsman

Ultimately the marketplace will decide whether there’s a need for a third party.

Former Governor of Utah and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr. visited Harvard last week to join former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for a forum discussion at the Institute of Politics called “China Rising.”

1. Fifteen Minutes: You’ve mentioned a need for a third party, what do you think such a party should look like or would look like?

JH: Well, ultimately the marketplace will decide whether there’s a need for a third party…and what it would look like. I’m in favor of a strong two-party system. I’d like to see the Republican Party reinvigorated for purposes of having a strong two-party system. If that doesn’t deliver for the American people then the marketplace will move us toward alternatives. I think there are a couple of election cycles left to see if the two-party system can in fact deliver for the American people. And as a lifelong Republican, I’d like to see it strengthened and reinvigorated, but ultimately the marketplace will sort that out.

2. FM: How long did it take you to decide to sign the gay marriage brief that was delivered to the Supreme Court?

JH: Well, ever since my first day in public office I’ve been in favor of equality under the law. And that has then moved closer and closer toward sort of officially embracing marriage equality. So when asked to sign on to the brief, I was… willing to do it. I had announced my support for civil unions as governor many, many years ago and before that while running as governor in the State of Utah 10 years ago.… I was in favor of reciprocal beneficiary rights. Sort of ill-defined at that point, but the purpose was to try to find some answers, some solutions to what I thought was an important concept, that being equality under the law for everybody. So I kind of went from my early political stages, to that, to supporting civil unions, to most recently signing on in support of the legal brief.

3. FM: If that legal brief had surfaced while you were seeking the Republican nomination [for President], would you have signed it at that point?

JH: Well I like to think that I’ve been pretty consistently in favor of equality under the law. I think that’s a conservative principle and I talked about equality under the law. I wasn’t rewarded for it during the primary. I used to talk about civil unions and my support for civil unions, but people evolve toward where we are today. I think this has been a very rapidly moving issue for a lot of people. I had given a lot of thought to the issue over the years…some parts it’s watching your friends who are denied maybe hospital visitation rights or equality under local laws where you like to see that remedied. You know, you don’t think about those things until you actually experience them through a friend. And do your views evolve and strengthen somewhat? Yeah they do. And I’m no exception to that rule.

4. FM: What do you wish you had done differently in your 2012 campaign, if anything?

JH: Taken second place in New Hampshire. Third place wasn’t quite good enough and the…marketplace expectation had put us at second.… The political marketplace is like the financial marketplace. It sets expectations, and our expectation was a second place finish. We finished third and that impacts fundraising, your.… market organizing, in this case South Carolina. So if we had to do it over again—we had one more week to go—we could have taken it from a third to a second.

5. FM: Now you’ve been a vocal critic of the GOP in its present form, can you summarize your criticisms for us?

JH: Well, as a lifelong member of the GOP, it shouldn’t always be taken as criticism, but rather constructive reasoning and proposed pathways and solutions for the future. That’s the only way that you can make something better, whether it’s my voice or a thousand other voices that care about a viable GOP. But getting back to a party that is courageous, visionary, and inclusive are all things that I’d like to see the party return to...where it has been in years past, whether under Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s or whether under Theodore Roosevelt earlier last century or in the 1950s under Eisenhower: big, bold, optimistic thinking about policies that are good for everybody, not just a subset of the American voters. And indeed the optimism and the courage that was displayed during the Reagan Administration. These are all elements that I think the party is capable of embracing and reconnecting with, but it’s going to take some sorting through the policy priorities and that’s done not by a party, but rather by candidates. So I think the biggest question going forward will be what kind of candidates do you have in the mix.… Are they able to actually redefine the parameters of what it means to be a Republican?

6. FM: Had 2012 gone a little bit differently, what people might have been on your running mate shortlist?

JH: Well, Stephen Colbert’s the only one I actually offered it to. And the last time I was on his show, I reminded him that he didn’t accept in time for South Carolina’s [primary]. So we were diminished by that. But beyond that, I never got that far.

7. FM: Will you seek a presidential nomination in 2016 on the Republican ticket or otherwise?

JH: Talking about running is putting the cart before the horse because I think the real discussion ahead is about policy priorities for the Republican Party. What will be the base and foundation of ideas that are talked about and do they in fact resonate with the American people? Are they issues that every American feels are pertinent and germane in their lives and feel some connection to? That then will answer who goes on to become a candidate. But we’re going to spend this year talking about ideas and issues. Where that takes us would be anybody’s guess today.