If former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was courting conservatives in the early part of his campaign for president, he had a funny way of showing it.
When his advisor, John Weaver, was quoted writing off the rest of the GOP field as "a bunch of cranks" who make "crazy or inane comments," Huntsman seemed to be consciously positioning himself at the left end of the GOP field. In an early debate, he explicitly framed hiself as the "I can get elected" moderate candidate.
But Huntsman has now changed his tune. As conservatives become increasingly dissatisfied with their main frontrunners -- Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney -- he seems to recognize an opportunity. He wants people to see that he's actually a lot more conservative than they may think, with a plan and a record to prove it.
But can he make a late move? And will the Right trust him?
Earlier today, I had the opportunity to speak with Huntsman. Here is an edited transcript:
FREDDOSO: I have read through the "Trust" speech you are about to give, and I see here, you’re probably the only guy in this race that has fully endorsed the Paul Ryan plan on entitlements. I see a lot of other things that conservatives should like.
In the meantime, I notice that now you’re going on Laura Ingraham, you’re talking to us; you seem to be making a bit of an offensive with the conservative media. Has your campaign strategy changed a little bit here, as we get in to the final month?
HUNTSMAN: ...If you don’t light your hair on fire at the beginning, it sometimes takes people a minute to come around. I’m not trying to pander. I’m not going to sign pledges. People who do that typically get the early notice. And, you know, when you cross a partisan line to serve your country, sometimes people say, “no how, no way.”
And now they are coming around and saying, you know, look at the record; it speaks for itself. It’s a consistent conservative record that’s based on a core that doesn’t waver and doesn’t change. And so it’s therefore no surprise that a lot of folks are coming around, and taking, I think, a legitimate first look, David. You know, a lot of people, they didn’t give us a legitimate first look, and they are now. And that’s a good thing, and I’m pleased with that.
We’ve still got five weeks left of the race in New Hampshire, and I’m sure to prove that point. And we are going the right direction in terms of polls, and I like that.
Now, I take your reference to pledges as having something to do with the ATR tax pledge.
There were half a dozen or more pledges that were floating around more in the early days of the campaign, that people were asked to sign. I was the only one who basically said “No.” It was the same position I took when I ran for governor in 2004 on a no-new-tax pledge. I said no. And in fact, I delivered the largest tax cut in the history of my state – never raised a tax.
But just fundamentally, the idea that somebody would try to handcuff you with a pledge, I just found to be not right.
Governor, you mention in your speech that you want to eliminate every loophole and every subsidy in the tax code. In your tax reform, toward getting as flat a tax as you can possibly get, is the mortgage deduction on the table? Are other deductions that regular people commonly take?
I’m calling for its elimination. All loopholes, all deductions in total. Simply, I mean what I did back before as governor. I called for the elimination of every loophole and deduction in our tax code. My objective was to deliver a flat tax – lower the rate, broaden the base and simplify. You can’t do it unless you’re able to raise your revenue stream from phasing out loopholes and deductions to reinvest it in the tax code and bring down the rate. It’s the same thing I did as governor, and I want to do it on the federal level, both on the business side and on the individual side. So I’m calling for, across the board, the elimination of all of the above – loopholes, deductions, corporate welfare, subsidies – all of the cobwebs, out.
Does that include the charitable giving deduction?
It includes everything. When I proposed it as governor, we did the same thing, only to find – there was some model, someone had actually done some quantitative analysis on it -- only to find that people gave more when their rates went down.
So that was the argument that I used: What is to lead you to believe that you’re looking at a static model here? Rates go down, people feel like they have a little more to give, they’re more inclined to give when they know that the tax model that’s used is going to be longer term, and that rates are going to be lower for a sustained period of time. I think that is a boon to charitable giving, and indeed the model that we looked at, that proved that point.
We had Mitt Romney in here yesterday, and we asked him, should government be promoting certain areas of business and business research and development, such as the electric car subsidies we’re seeing…Should government be in the business of doing that, or do you view that as one of the subsidies you would want to eliminate?
I view it as a subsidy. If it goes into a corporation, it’s a subsidy. I think that the federal government, doing basic research – from which all might benefit, whether it’s the Defense Department or…Department of Energy -- I think that’s legitimate. But putting money into specific individual companies? I don’t think that’s right. That’s a subsidy that I would eliminate.
Should government be there as a backstop for the financial system the way it served during TARP, then?
It should not be a backstop. We’re not going to bail companies out anymore. We’ve been through that chapter, and I think we’ve learned some important lessons. One of the problems I have is that we’re left with a banking system that is setting us up for disaster again. You’ve got banks that are too big to fail. And when they’re too big to fail, if they’re $2 trillion to $3 trillion per institution -- if they go down, we go down. We can’t afford to let them fail.
That’s the way we have them today. So they’ve got an implied subsidy on the part of the taxpayer, which I think is wrong. So as president, I will take on the banks – I will right-size them, because capitalism without failure isn’t capitalism. That’s exactly what we’ve got right now in the banking sector. So my objective would be to right-size these institutions…
I understand you’re saying there’s an implied subsidy in too-big-to-fail. That seems to make sound free-market sense. But it also sounds like there’s a lot of government compulsion required to make them downsize. What does that process look like?
If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big for me. Because it means they would get some kind of subsidy or bailout on the part of the taxpayer. The banking sector, to my mind, was appropriately sized in the 1990s. So if you look at 1995, 1998, or 1999, when Goldman Sachs was about $200 billion in size, as opposed to, by 2008, it had grown in size to $1.1 trillion. Was that an advantage to our taxpayers – to our economic base – to have Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions larger for the sake of being larger, or did it carry a greater risk longer-term, because of that implied safety net of a government bailout?
I would argue that size brought about more risk for the taxpayers of this country. So I would point ot the 90s as being a time when banks were appropriately sized. So I would impose a fee on banks that are “too big to fail.” And they either pay the fee into a fund that mitigates the risk inherent to the taxpayers, or they right-size to a point where they’re not too big to fail. It’s a pretty simple thing in my mind.
As we talk about your new outreach to conservatives, one area where – to my knowledge – your record as a social conservative is fairly sound. I understand that you’re focusing on New Hampshire, not Iowa, but can you tell me what sort of appeal can you make to social conservatives, and do you plan to make that appeal more?
You can look at my record. It is what it is. I’m pro-life, I always have been. I have two little adopted girls to prove that point. I’m pro-Second Amendment, always have been. People can look at my record and see what it is. It doesn’t vary, it doesn’t shift, it isn’t opportunistic, it is what it is. Some will find things to like there – maybe not 100 percent of the time, but I think based on where I come down on some of the important social issues, I think people will find something to like.
And can you explain your position on same-sex marriage?
I believe in equality under the law, which brings me to support civil unions. The same position that William F. Buckley, my hero growing up, had. The same position George W. Bush has. I’m to the right of Dick Cheney in terms of same-sex marriage. I still believe in traditional marriage, as a married man for 28 years with seven kids. But I think that the civil unions are appropriate given my belief in equality under the law.
Newt Gingrich is taking every early state by storm, except maybe New Hampshire. Make the case against Newt. Why should I be interested in you rather than him?
In order to get where we need to be, we need to have the kind of leadership that can handle the two deficits -- the economic deficit and the trust deficit. The economic deficit can only be driven by someone who’s actually been in the private sector, knows how to create jobs, who has been a successful executive like I have as governor, who has reformed taxes, created and environment that is conducive to growth. Finally, someone who knows the world in which we live. Because we live in a very interconnected global economy. I’ve lived overseas four times. I’ve been an ambassador for my country three times.
That’s on the economic side. On the trust side, if you’re part of the culture that has given rise to a lot of the discontent and the cynicism on the part of the American people, you’re going to find it impossible to change. So if you’re part of the culture here, you’re not going to be able to take on the Congress and call for term limits, as I am.
When you talk about that revolving door, I assume you’re talking about some of Speaker Gingrich’s dealings, especially since leaving the Congress.
I’m talking about closing the revolving door completely, thereby making it impossible for members of Congress to move right into the lobbying profession. If you come from K Street, and you’re part of that culture, it’s going to be an impossible thing to do. And this exercise in reform, and the two deficits that we face -- economic and of trust – will be incomplete unless we have someone who is completely detached from that culture, and can work it with an absolutely free hand, which I’m able to do.
How about Mitt Romney? You, like him, are a former governor. You’ve both been in private business. Why does Jon Huntsman stand out as a better candidate than Mitt Romney?
I was number one in job creation in this country as governor. Massachusetts was number 47. I cut taxes, he raised taxes. I got health care reform without a mandate, his had a mandate. I know the world for what it is. I’ve actually lived overseas and done business overseas. I understand how the pieces fit together.
I’m also not in the hip pocket of Wall Street, which gives me an absolutely free hand, David, in dealing with banks that are too big to fail.
You’re referring to Gov. Romney’s donations from Wall Street, which, if you only count donations to campaigns, exceed even those of President Obama. But I imagine that if you were to catch fire, you would probably get a lot of money from there as well – or are you saying that you’d swear off such donations?
…People know where I stand, I’ve been talking about these issues for a while. I don’t anticipate I’ll be getting a lot of contributions from that sector of the economy. But that’s okay, because I believe reform is a whole lot more important than me building a warchest with contributions from that sector.
Your plan for entitlements is the Paul Ryan plan, which you explicitly endorse in this speech. But while discretionary spending may not be the biggest problem in the long run, you can’t balance the budget without it. Where else can government be cut?
I’m for the Ryan plan, and I think the Ryan plan can actually be expedited. You can cut one-fifth of government overhead. You can look at departments that don’t belong in the executive branch, given that we’re in the second decade in the 21st Century. The Education Department and the Commerce Department, just to name a couple. I am somebody who has run a large organization, and we can’t carry this heavy overhead any longer.
I’m sorry, governor – you say you want to eliminate the Education and Commerce Departments.
The Education Department, I can’t find value in. The Commerce Department, which I have worked in before -- you can take the export promotion function and move it to the State Department. You can take the Weather Service and move it somewhere else. You can take the economic analysis bureau and move it to the Treasury Department. It’s an easy thing to do, given that today it’s a hodgepodge of a lot of different bureaus that didn’t necessarily fit comfortably anywhere else, so we have a Commerce Department.
…Tell me about Defense cuts. We live in a dangerous world. How much can we hope to cut, reasonably?
We’re spending over $700 billion per year in the Defense Department. I think we start by looking at Afghanistan. We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That’s a million dollars per that we’re looking at. We have 700 installations around the world in 60 different countries – many of them an overhang from the Cold War, from the George Kennan view of containment. We can certainly do something there.
We’ve got weapon systems like the new generation of Humvee, which is tens of billions of dollars. You can retro-fit the old Humvees. You’ve got the joint missile system that many say is duplicative. You’ve got an Army that today stands at 485,000, which I’d like to take down to 450,000 and allow the National Guard to step up and do more, now that they’ve proven through two wars that they can play an extraordinary role beyond that which we maybe originally imagined.
Beyond those ideas, the whole procurement and contracting side of the Defense Department. After World War II, we had an 1,100 ship Navy. We had probably 115 aircraft carriers. We had a NAVSEA, which was kind of a contracting arm, which was about 1,000 people strong. Today, we’ve got 25,000 at NAVSEA, making, what, seven ships a year? We’ve got overhead in the area of procurement and purchasing that must be reformed. It is top-heavy and it is not serving our needs.