The Washington Post

Huntsman tests the waters carefully

Chief correspondent

Jon Huntsman Jr. staged a political coming-out party here this weekend with the kind of robust schedule that suggests he is close to becoming a full-fledged candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination. He stepped more gingerly when it came to explaining just where he stands on the issues.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

There is considerable interest in Huntsman’s prospective presidential candidacy, which befits a truly fresh face in a party where many voters are less than overwhelmed by their choices. But with a fresh face come questions, which Huntsman began to confront as he introduced himself. Two broad concerns could determine his success in the nomination battle.

One is: Where does he fit in a Republican Party that moved to the right in the two years since he stepped down as governor of Utah to become President Obama’s ambassador to China? The other: Where does he differ with Obama and how vigorously is he prepared to draw those distinctions as a candidate?

Huntsman arrived back from Beijing barely a month ago and so may be reluctant to offer a full-throated critique of the president’s policies. But in two areas of foreign policy, he carefully expressed disagreements with Obama this weekend — one predictable, the other less so.

He reproached the president for saying Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement should be based on the pre-1967 war borders. That criticism was shared by virtually every Republican presidential candidate. Huntsman’s language, however, was by far the most muted. “If you respect Israel,” he said gently, “we probably ought to ask what they think is best.”

More notable was his critique of the administration’s policy in Libya. He differed not only with the president but also with many in his own party, who have criticized the president for not moving swiftly enough to put in place a no-fly zone to protect rebel forces and civilians. Huntsman said he wouldn’t have intervened militarily at all.

Why? One reason is cost. He says decisions about deploying U.S. forces should be based on “a fundamental question: Can we afford this?” Another is national security. “I felt from the beginning that Libya was not in our core national security interest, and if it’s not, why are we going to go about running the risk of deploying troops there and spending whatever it’s going to cost us over time?” he said.

Asked about Obama’s argument that the United States intervened to prevent a massacre of civilians by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s forces, he responded, “We could be responding to corners of the world constantly if that were the motivating criteria.”

On a third area of foreign policy, Afghanistan, Huntsman offered a lengthy but more opaque answer to a voter in Hanover on Thursday night. The United States, he said, has “a generational opportunity to reset our position in the world based on affordability” — a broad statement that will require more explanation. He said that a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan is inevitable, though he leapfrogged over the critical question of how quickly that can or should take place.

Instead he talked about the vacuum that would be created by a U.S. withdrawal and the roles that India and Pakistan would try to play. He called that “a combustible situation” with the possibility for civil war. He also predicted that China would be drawn into a role in the region. “You can imagine the dynamics that will play out in the coming years are going to be difficult, challenging and perhaps treacherous,” he said.

Where would all that leave the United States? Huntsman did not say.

Domestically, he offered a generally pro-business economic policy. America, he said, is primed for another great industrial revolution, a way of saying that the country may be in a funk — his word for the current mood — but that all the tools are here for another burst of growth.

He has pointed to his record in Utah of cutting taxes and reforming the code, and said this weekend that he favors a big cut in the corporate income tax.

Huntsman recognized that the tea-party wing of his party, which has become far more significant in New Hampshire in the past two years, cares most about government spending. “Our debt is shipwrecking the country,” he said.

He said the long-term solvency of Social Security will require “recalibration” of retirement age and some benefits. On the controversial plan offered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to reduce the deficit and deal with the debt by dramatically reforming Medicare, Huntsman told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos on Thursday that he would have voted for it. But his embrace is limited. He told an audience in Hancock on Friday morning that Ryan’s proposals are “worthy of consideration.”

Traveling in western New Hampshire, home to moderate Republicans and even more moderate independents, Huntsman encountered many questions about climate change and his past support for a cap-and-trade regime to reduce carbon emissions.

He has backed off that position, although he insisted in the ABC interview: “I don’t change on my positions. The circumstances change.” One circumstance that has changed is the shift within his party. Republicans today are far more skeptical about the scientific evidence about global warming.

Huntsman now makes two points when he talks about climate change: that the economic collapse has affected what governments can require of business on emissions; and that any solution has to be international, to make sure polluters such as China are doing their part. He says that America must become greener, but that alternative energy sources may not yet be affordable. For now, he prefers exploitation of the nation’s natural gas reserves.

Huntsman spent part of his weekend avoiding ideological labels — and the charge that he is insufficiently conservative for today’s Republican Party. “I think we can probe beyond these tags of Democrat, moderate, conservative and really take a look at what people have done and are willing to do going forward,” he said. He called himself “a pragmatic problem-solver.”

He will soon learn if that’s what his party wants in a nominee.

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