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Q+A: Transcript of Jon Huntsman interview

Published: 4:58PM Sunday April 22, 2012 Source: Q+A

PAUL                           
We've got an exclusive interview with Jon Hunstman, who was US ambassador to China - a Republican - under President Obama and is considered moderate by today's Republican standards. So I interviewed Jon Hunstman yesterday, and I began by reminding him that he once described Mitt Romney as lacking a core and asked him what he makes of Mitt Romney now.

GOVERNOR JON HUNTSMAN - Former US Presidential Candidate
Well, I think his strength is certainly the fact that he comes from the private sector. He's been in business. He's been a governor. He understands how jobs are created. I think that's a real strength. Now, clearly, on the liability side of the page might be that he signed a few too many pledges or maybe been on both sides of too many issues, but I think in the final analysis, Americans, during this time of economic despair, they're going to look for somebody who can address the unemployment problem, who can address our competitiveness needs and do the kinds of things, Paul, that are going to get this country back on its feet from a competitive standpoint and a job-growth standpoint. I think Governor Romney probably is best positioned to do that.

PAUL                           
To be fair to Barack Obama, though, he inherited a basket-case economy, and the employment numbers are looking good. Can't Obama do this?

HUNTSMAN        
Well, he did inherit a troubling situation, and I think in America we do ourselves a disservice by pointing the finger of blame at any one particular party. We've got $15 trillion to $16 trillion in debt. It just didn't grow under one administration. Certainly, it's grown at an historic pace the last few years. But the fact of the matter is here in America, Americans are looking for solutions. They don't want finger-pointing. They don't want extreme partisanship. They want solutions. And I suspect that the election will largely be tied to the direction the economy is going later in the year, so if unemployment, for example, has a 7 in front of it, I think the President will be in a stronger position. If the GDP numbers come out stronger than they are - better than 3%, for example - then I think that is to the benefit of the President. But in the end, I do believe it's going to be a discussion about who's prepared to create jobs and get this economy moving again, and then who can appeal to that middle demographic. People forget that the fastest-growing party in America is the unaffiliated party. It isn't the Republicans; it isn't the Democrats - it's the unaffiliated party. And they're going to watch and remain kind of aloof until the very end, I suspect. And then they're going to climb on to one of the candidates who best addresses some of their needs, and I think this election cycle, that's mostly going to be economics and jobs.

PAUL                           
That's correct, the danger of the uncommitted voter. Governor, America and the world - you were appointed as a Republican, which is a strange thing. Obama appointed you United States ambassador to China. And you've spoken dramatically of how you started to see America once you got into China. I mean, it's amazing that we still call China a developing country, isn't it? And you saw one country as ascendant - that is to say China - and one on the brink of collapse. Explain how you saw America and China.

HUNTSMAN        
Well, you can't help but, when you walk the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, as I did on a regular basis as the US ambassador to China, feeling the energy and the buzz and the excitement. There's a lot of blue sky, figuratively speaking. They think their day has arrived. They've had 30 years of GDP growth of 8%, 9%, 10%. I've lived in Asia four times during my lifetime, and I've seen the rise of China up close and very personally. And you can't help but reflect 10,000 miles away on the United States, with all of its intrinsic advantages - which still, I think, are very real - being a little bit down, and, as I would say, in a funk. We're kind of trading at a low ebb right now, although I do feel that our spirits are being lifted a little bit by recent economic performances. But when you stop to look at the United States vis-à-vis China, I wouldn't trade our challenges for their challenges any day. In fact, I suspect that the United States could very well be on the cusp of a manufacturing renaissance, if we play our cards right. If we are smart about tax reform, as I think Governor Romney will be; if we're smart about the regulatory issues that are impeding the marketplace; if we work on things like job training and vocational skill development, something this country did very well many years ago and we've kind of lost connection with, I think manufacturing is going to return in part to the United States. But a lot of the manufacturing that years ago would have left to go to where the grass is greener economically will choose to stay here in the United States, and I think that's going to be to the benefit of a younger generation of Americans today who are getting out of school and out of college and wondering where their jobs going to come from.

PAUL                           
Anyway, you do your service in China, Governor, and you come back to the United States. Were you amazed at what you saw of the Republican Party when you came back?

HUNTSMAN        
Well, I was amazed at the division, the multiple divisions within the party. Now, I grew up in a party that was pretty unified around smaller government; free-market economics; a strong, confident foreign policy and defence; confident engagement with the rest of the world, and I see a party developing that is a bit fractured in that fractured in that regard - divided in terms of foreign policy...

PAUL                           
Well, it's more than fractured, isn't it? I mean, it's tearing itself apart, Governor. It's torn itself apart.

HUNTSMAN        
Well, that's one of the reasons you have what I described earlier - this phenomenon called the fastest-growing party in America being the unaffiliated party. So you've got a lot of people who would, in years gone by, naturally have felt very comfortable within the Republican Party, who are saying, "I think I'm going to wait it out, and I'm going to vote for the individual, regardless of party affiliation, and I'm going to look very closely at the issues." So I would argue that in today's party-centric world, you know, the duopoly - the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, you know, they've got to stay relevant. They've got to stay visionary. They've got to stay focused on solutions, as opposed to just finger-pointing and assigning the blame game, or you're going to have some different angle of attack from a third-party movement or a fourth-party movement that will give them a run for the money. That's just the way the free market of politics works.

PAUL                           
And that's a theme of yours.

HUNTSMAN        
I think the American people are rightly concerned about some of these issues.

PAUL                           
Indeed, that's a theme of yours, this business of the third party, but a third party - I mean, you might feel there's an element of a third party with the non-committed voting bloc, but the last time a new party came up the middle was the Republican Party in 1860. That's a long time between beers, isn't it?

HUNTSMAN        
And, you know, why was it 1860 - or more specifically in 1856, when John Fremont was the first Republican to run. He just didn't win. Abraham Lincoln did win in 1860. But then, you know, you look at the reform agenda of Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1912, where he garnered 25%, 26% of the vote. You can imagine what he would have done if he had the power of the internet that was behind his Bull Moose Party movement, in terms of organising and fund-raising and projecting his reform agenda. The point here, Paul, is that this nation is in need of a full vetting of real options and solutions and a vision going forward. We've got to get beyond the point of our two party extremes with their backs to the wall pointing fingers of blame at each other, and all the while, the middle having been blown out of the system, nobody's getting the work of the people done. And I think that's going to reach 212-degree boiling point at some point, and the American people are going to demand action and results and movement in the right direction that gets this country moving again by one of the parties, and if not one of the parties, then perhaps an alternative movement.

PAUL                           
But there certainly was a distasteful kind of a campaign. I mean, from the outside looking at your performance, Governor, you seemed to struggle in those early debates because you didn't seem feral enough or partisan enough. You had a terrible disease whereby you saw both sides of the coin. Would you change that?

HUNTSMAN        
No. I promised my wife at the very beginning of the campaign. She said, "If you pander, if you sign any of those silly damn pledges, I will leave you." I think I enjoy my marriage enough to want to keep it intact. But, listen, it's the reality of some of the early primary states that makes it very difficult, and I think of great concern to many voters in the United States who find themselves in the middle. They say, "When are our issues going to be talked about? When are our voices going to be heard?" There is too much pandering. There is too much in the way of pledge-signing in those early primary states, some exclusionary events that don't encourage broad-based turnout and participation. If we're going to make the system work in the United States, we need to encourage everyone turning out and participating, and particularly the young people - making sure that they're fully invested in the future of the country and fully participating.

PAUL                           
Still, Governor, if I just go back to the Republican Party. I mean, is it possible to hold the Republican Party in the palm of one's hand at the moment? I mean, can you express, say, in a couple of sentences now what the Republican Party is now? I mean, you spoke at Harvard the other night, said the Republican Party's not in a good place.

HUNTSMAN        
I would say the Republican Party is laser-like focused on debt. I think that has been a rallying point for Republicans to date. But we've got to have a bigger, bolder vision for the Republican Party if we're going to appeal to Americans across the board. It's got to be about debt. It's got to be about growth. It's got to be about our role in the world - cleaning up the Middle East, for example. And it's got to be about education. We can't be afraid, as a party, to talk about things like education and infrastructure - those issues that many in the party aren't willing to talk about right now, but those issues that are inexorably linked to our ability to compete in the 21st century.

PAUL                           
Governor, just finally, a bit of history. It was you who had the honour of introducing the Alaskan governor Sarah Palin to the Republican Convention about four and a half, five years ago. What did you make of her then? What do you make of her now?

HUNTSMAN        
She was a populist, very popular governor, then two years in office, and I knew her through my work as chair of the Western Governors Association. I guess I was one of the few people on the senior McCain team who had actually had some interaction with her. And she came out of relative obscurity to seize the moment, and was a very exciting figure in those early days of the campaign, and I think she still today represents a certain pent-up frustration and anger on the part of many Americans as it relates to the inability of government to get things done. That's why she has a following. That's why she has a constituency. She might not be revered by everybody, but I think she does represent a certain level of anger and frustration on the part of Americans.

PAUL                           
In the end, though, Governor, can Romney defeat the sheer great qualities of communication which Obama has come November? I mean, he's an orator.

HUNTSMAN        
Well, I would argue that Obama had certain communication skills on the campaign trail of 2008, but when he got into office, he didn't have any skills at all in terms of forming big policy ideas and putting them forward. That's where there was a disconnect, and that's where I think that Governor Romney is going to have some real strengths, because he's been in the world of policy formulation, either as a governor or in business. So he might not have the communication strength that Barack Obama has immediately on the campaign trail, but I think his strengths and his assets are going to be in managing our way forward, given the problems that we face, and I think that the American people are going to recognise that part.

PAUL                           
Governor Hunstman, I thank you very much indeed for your time, and we'll see what happens come November.

MR HUNTSMAN      Paul, it's a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity.
    

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