SALT LAKE CITY — “Huntsman for speaker!”
That's the closing line of an opinion column that ran Tuesday in the Washington Post suggesting that former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. would be a good choice to replace embattled House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
And while that's not likely to happen, the scenario showcases Huntsman as someone who has a national role to play in restoring the Republican Party's reputation, said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“It's a huge compliment to Gov. Huntsman,” Jowers said Wednesday. “I think Huntsman has been one of the most productive thinkers about the next step for Republicans since the election. He hasn't cast stones but rather has tried to talk about solutions Republicans can bring to bear.”
Huntsman dropped out of the presidential race after losing the New Hampshire primary in January, but his campaign's call for Republicans and Democrats to work together is apparently attracting new interest as Congress and newly re-elected President Barack Obama near the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said Huntsman is “the kind of leader people would like to see in office” because of his reputation for bringing people together.
“Jon Huntsman has always been a common-sense leader. He has always been able to build consensus. People on both sides of the aisle like his ideas,” Wright said. “It's not surprising to me his name is being mentioned.”
In his column, Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, warns Boehner's re-election next month could be in trouble after he failed to win House support for his “Plan B” proposal, intended to give him an edge in negotiations with the Democratic president over the looming spending cuts and tax increases.
Ornstein said because there's nothing in the U.S. Constitution that requires the speaker to be a member of the House, it's time to look outside for a leader “to transcend the differences and alter the dysfunctional dynamic we are all enduring.”
He offered up both Huntsman and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as the type of Republicans who could work with both the GOP and Democrats while adhering to their party's principles like fiscal conservatism.
Huntsman, Ornstein wrote, would provide “a different kind of leadership” as speaker, driving a hard bargain with President Barack Obama but aiming “for a broad majority from the center out, not from the right fringe in. … He would have immense moral suasion.”
Huntsman did not respond to an email request for comment on the column. A former U.S. ambassador to China under Obama, Huntsman had recently been mentioned as a possible pick for secretary of state. Another bid for the White House is also a possibility.
Jowers said Huntsman, like other would-be GOP candidates in 2016, is likely watching to “see which messages are playing and which factions of the Republican Party are winning to decide whether another run is feasible.”
Ornstein, a Hinckley Institute fellow, spoke at a University of Utah forum last September to promote the book he co-authored with another political scholar, Thomas Mann, “It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”
The book blames the GOP for the ongoing dysfunction in Washington, suggesting Republicans have all but “declared war on the government” by being more loyal to their party than to the country.
Wright said the current stalemate over dealing with the fiscal cliff has put Boehner in a difficult situation.
“I think there is plenty of blame to go around, but at the end of the day, we have to work together,” the Utah GOP leader said. “We've got to figure out a way forward other than bickering and fighting.”