In the 1960s, Jon Huntsman’s grandfather, a Republican, used to have two photos hanging by the front door of his house that guests would see as they left-one of John F. Kennedy, and one of Lyndon B. Johnson.
In his Clough Colloquium lecture Tuesday afternoon, Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and former United States ambassador to Singapore and China, pointed out how unlikely it would be for this to happen in America today.
“We’ve forgotten that moment in history when we actually used to be proud of our president,” he said. “Where even as someone of a different party, we’d hang that picture in our home, and we’d say, we’re Americans-that’s who we are.”
Instead, Huntsman said, politicians have for too long been putting party before country, forcing moderate views out of politics to be replaced by extreme positions.
“We’ve blown the total center out of politics, and all the sane American people are saying, ‘What about us? Don’t we count?'” Huntsman said. Despite the dim current state, Huntsman repeatedly emphasized his hope for the future.
“I don’t want anyone walking out of this lecture hall thinking that this country is doomed for failure, or that the American people are forever consigned to division like the world is today-red, blue, MSNBC, FOX, Republican, Democrat,” he said.
Huntsman, who came onto the national political scene last year as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, quickly gained support from prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle, from former president Bill Clinton to Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi. He earned a reputation as being a moderate conservative willing to put the country’s concerns before party politics.
Huntsman was introduced to the Robsham crowd by R. Shep Melnick, the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. professor of American Politics in the political science department. Melnick, a Democrat, described a time last year when he was called by a polling agency and asked about the Republican field.
“The first question that I received was, ‘Which Republican candidate do you think is most capable of improving the economy?’ and I answered Jon Huntsman,” Melnick said. “The second question was: ‘What Republican candidate do you think is most capable of handling American foreign policy?’ And again I answered Jon Huntsman. Third question: ‘What Republican candidate do you think is overall most capable of being president?’ And again I gave the same answer.”
Melnick lauded Huntsman’s success as governor of Utah, where he was reelected to office with 78 percent of the vote, and left office with an 80 percent approval rating.
Rather than giving a partisan speech, Huntsman said his goal was to reflect on what he learned while campaigning for the Republican nomination and describe how he sees America progressing.
“My goal is to impart a couple of thoughts that resonate, that are relevant, that are consistent with you, students, and your time in history,” Huntsman said. “You’ve got a great motto at this school-ever to excel-which means you’re always thinking, always doing, always moving ahead.”
He spoke about his experiences on the campaign, ranging from his appearance on The Colbert Report to his time on the debate stage with the other Republican candidates. He equated the primary debates to a “game show,” pointing out the absurdity in summarizing his views on tax policy or nuclear weapons in 30 seconds. The game show was not a high quality one, according to Huntsman. “The barriers for entry into this game are pretty dang low,” he said.
“I wasn’t able to make myself into something I’m not, which is what you do in primary politics,” he said on his eventual loss.
He was also critical of the views of many of the candidates on foreign policy, joking that by the time the debate moderators got to him, America had already declared war on five different countries. “We have to be honest with the American people about how the world really works out there.”
After reflecting on the campaign, Huntsman spoke about the current state of America. One of his largest focuses was on the economy, and he spoke at length about America’s current debt problems, which he sees as a “ball and chain” on America’s ability to compete internationally. The transition from skilled laborers to automation, he said, is causing structural unemployment that cannot be solved easily.
During his lecture, Huntsman listed the United States’ recovery, energy, Europe, and China as key areas to focus on in the future years. “These are the four most dramatic and profound areas of change that will play out over the next four years or few decades,” he said.
After the lecture, Huntsman took questions from the audience. When asked what he would do if he had the opportunity to ensure one bill became law, Huntsman answered quickly that he would focus on tax reform. He said he would remove all tax loopholes, eliminate corporate breaks, and lower taxes on a revenue neutral basis. The result, he said, would be an easily understandable, efficient tax code, and the ability to cut the nation’s debt.
Another question focused on U.S.-China relations. Huntsman began answering the question in Mandarin, before switching to English.
“The U.S. and China have a marriage, and divorce isn’t an option,” he said. He commented that he was frustrated during the debates, because candidates kept focusing on leveraging and maneuvering, rather than cooperating. “[Everyone is] talking about what we do to China, not what we do with China, ’cause you get a better applause line if you say what you’re going to do to China,” he said.
Huntsman, who lived in China for almost two years as an ambassador for the Obama administration, demonstrated his strong handle on Chinese politics and emphasized how important he believes that nation will be in the coming years.
Despite some laments, Huntsman remained strongly optimistic about the future of America, and he made sure to instill in the listeners a sense of responsibility for the future of the country.
“You have a head start by being here, make no mistake,” he said. “You have a duty and an obligation to take your brainpower and your network and your connections, and to plow it back into your communities and to somehow, some way, make them a little better.”