SALT LAKE CITY — Former presidential candidate and Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr.'s best shot at the White House may not come until 2020, a political scholar at a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank said.
For now, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told the Deseret News, Huntsman, 52, needs to continue speaking out against the Republican Party's sharp shift to the right and hope the GOP takes the criticism to heart.
“The biggest problem he's got, I'm afraid, is the Republican Party itself,” said Ornstein, co-author of a recent book suggesting Republican extremists have all but “declared war on the government.”
He said it's not yet clear whether any moderate GOP presidential contender “can bring the party back to something close to a center-right party as a opposed to a radical right-wing party.”
Ornstein said he told Huntsman earlier this year that his hope of securing the GOP presidential nomination for 2012 was over when he defended climate change during a primary debate.
“That was it,” Ornstein said. “When you basically have a party that denies science, that takes the hardest of hard lines on immigration, that is unwilling to move a millimeter to deal with the ‘fiscal cliff' problem, then you have a party that is not a Jon Huntsman-type party.”
Huntsman, who left his post as U.S. ambassador to China last year to launch a presidential bid that ended after a weak showing in January's New Hampshire primary, has said little about his political future, describing himself instead as focusing on a variety of new roles.
Those include speaking engagements; as well as serving distinguished fellow at The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank; and as chairman of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He is also associated with No Labels, a national organization that promotes bipartisanship.
The twice-elected Utah governor recently told “The Ripon Forum,” published by a national pro-GOP organization, that Republicans have no future “without being a reality-based, solutions-oriented party” and that no agenda can be advanced “as long as compromise is seen as something akin to treason” within the party.
Ornstein said Huntsman has “great potential” as an opinion leader.
“He has, first of all, substantial name recognition. Take him out of those presidential debates, put him on television or put him in front of a podium, he's a very attractive, persuasive person. He's got credibility,” he said.
The GOP's future
Republicans may not be ready to pay serious attention to Huntsman's message unless the party takes a beating in the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.
“If things go bad in 2014 and 2016, Huntsman may be able to make a better case,” said Tim Hagle, an active Republican and a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
Until then, Hagle said, Republicans are likely to stick to their positions on fiscal and social issues, which often leave little room for compromise.
After Mitt Romney's loss in the November election, Hagle said, any re-examination of the party and what it stands for is “certainly understandable and appropriate. But it doesn't mean it was all wrong.”
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said political parties are slow to change. There's also the possibility that the party will choose to veer even more to the right, he said.
Party leaders may decide that the problem in 2012 was that Romney was too moderate. “They'll say, ‘Next time around, we need to forget about finding somebody who will appeal to the middle because we tried it and it didn't work,'” Scala said.
Democrats went through decades of soul-searching before moving on to more centrist candidates, he said. “It took a long time for the Democrats to go from George McGovern to Bill Clinton."
And even if the party follows Huntsman's lead, there's no guarantee he would ever be on the ballot as a presidential candidate.
“Talking in elite circles is one thing. Becoming the standard-bearer of the party is something else,” Scala said, noting Huntsman has already likely alienated party leaders with his criticism of the GOP.
A question of message
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said what the GOP needs to do is sell its message better, not change what it stands for to try to appease voters.
“I think we do a pathetic job of communicating,” Chaffetz said, calling it an “oversimplification” to suggest the party was too extreme and unwilling to compromise.
Chaffetz, who ran Huntsman's first campaign for governor and served as his chief of staff, said they're very different politically. He not only endorsed Romney in the 2012 presidential race but campaigned around the country for him.
Huntsman, Chaffetz said, is “fairly conservative on some issues. On other issues, he's much further to the left than, I think, the rest of the nation,” citing Huntsman's support for cap and trade programs with emissions permits to control climate change.
“Cap and trade is not going to be a winning issue for Republicans — not now and not in 2020,” Chaffetz said. “When it comes to fiscal discipline and all that, foreign affairs, Jon Huntsman is as rock solid as you get.”
As far as any chance Huntsman has in 2016 or beyond, Chaffetz said he's “probably made it more difficult."
"I wish him nothing but the best," he said. "But I still have a box of Kleenex by my bed after” Romney's loss.
Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham also backed Romney in the last election. He described Huntsman as “quite moderate, obviously,” and too big a spender on government programs.
“I think maybe he has the worst of both worlds,” Kirkham said. “Does he have a future? I don't know. That's up to the people. I would hope we are moving to more fiscally responsible spending.”
Kirkham said while both political parties should avoid extremism, it's not clear the GOP needs to make any shift in direction.
“I don't know what the definition of moving to the center is,” he said. “Really, all the tea party has ever fought for is fiscal responsibility. That's it. We haven't been involved in any of the social issues.”
Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said he is concerned for both political parties “to the extent their more ideological extreme elements tend to have a more disproportionate role.”
Matheson said most Americans, including Utahns, tend to be more centrist regardless of party affiliation.
“I think both parties need to be careful about representing the significant amounts of America that are looking for something that is a little more constructive,” he said.
It's likely too soon for Republicans to make changes in their party, Matheson said. Despite losing the White House and not regaining control of the Senate in November, the GOP continues to hold a majority in the House.
“Look, two years ago, the Republican Party was on a high,” Matheson said, referring to the GOP sweep in the 2010 midterm elections. “I'm just not prepared to say, ‘Oh, they lost their election. That means they have to change.' I think we have to take a little bit of a broader view.”
Matheson, who won his own tough race for the state's new 4th District congressional seat, was reluctant to rate Huntsman's chances as a presidential candidate.
“I just think he's an exceptional person. I just feel that regardless of party affiliation,” he said. “I don't think his politics and mine are that different. So what can I say?”
Ornstein, who recently wrote a column suggesting Huntsman would be a good choice to replace House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said there's plenty of time for Huntsman to make a mark.
“Lots of things can happen,” Ornstein said. “He's still a young man.”
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