Jon Huntsman On the GOP: "We Are Better Than Where Our Party is Today"

On Thursday evening, former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He covered a wide range of issues, including immigration, marriage equality, and changing the political culture of Washington. Huntsman charged the Republican Party with moving away from Ronald Reagan’s legacy by elevating ideology over pragmatism:

“When a party stops solving problems, the American people move away from it ... We are better than where our party is today.”

PolicyMic writer Sagar Jethani had an opportunity to catch up with Governor Huntsman and get his thoughts on the debate over same-sex marriage, President Obama’s leadership, and the dramatic changes taking place within the Republican party today.

Sagar Jethani (SJ): The Republican Party has been going through some intense soul-searching since November. Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio have urged the party to better identify with people outside the base, and the RNC's post-election report argues that Republicans need to be more welcoming if they want to start winning presidential elections again. You've been saying these things long before anyone else. What do you make of these new efforts?

Jon Huntsman (JH) :  I've always been a proponent of the Republican party staying at the cutting edge on issues. Whether on education, taxes, immigration, or our country’s engagement with the rest of the world, there are a whole host of things that need to be re-evaluated on a regular basis while still holding true to our core principles.

We've been rebuffed now. The election happened, and it spoke volumes. We've lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 election cycles. It ought to be a message loud and clear that we're out of sync with the aspirations of a good percentage of the American people.

SJ: Some within the party argue that to change direction now would represent a retreat from core principles.

JH: It isn't about abandoning core principles. It's about modernizing the way we view the issues that will allow us to win lost demographics. It’s all about the math. Youth, we lost 60-40. Hispanics, we lost 70-30. Asian-Americans, we lost 75-25. Something has gone wrong in the way that we've presented our case over the last few election cycles. We don't have enough people supporting our cause to win a national election.

SJ: How do you start winning back those lost demographics?

JH: We have to be seen as problem-solvers — as being at the cutting edge of policy. Voters need to see that we are representing their best interests. We're going to have to innovate. We're going to have to re-think the way we talk about the issues while staying true to Ronald Reagan’s core themes about freedom, opportunity, a level playing-field, and a right-sized government. Those have got to be the constants for the Republican Party, but other aspects of policy will differ.

SJ: The Supreme Court this week is hearing arguments on the legalization of gay marriage. Last month, you announced your support for same-sex marriage and encouraged fellow Republicans to view it as a conservative cause. Will the Republican Party be able to pivot on this issue, or is it too late?

JH: I think it's less about the party and more about the candidates. The party can advocate something – whether it's same-sex marriage or anything else – but its value becomes lessened when you have candidates who lead out as they should. It shouldn't be a party-centric approach, but a candidate-centric approach. Ultimately, the candidate wins, and they’re the ones who are going to transform the party landscape. So I don't put too much stock in what the party is advocating on particular issues.

SJ: Rand Paul has been getting a lot of attention lately, first by protesting the administration's use of drone strikes, and next by winning CPAC's straw poll of potential 2016 contenders. What do you make of the libertarian wing of the GOP he represents? Do you think it will open the party up to more people?

JH: I think Rand Paul has tapped a vein, particularly among young people with whom these ideas have always been popular. The libertarian streak has always been part of the Republican Party. It’s completely in line with a party that is committed to the Tenth amendment of the Constitution, allowing the states to be the incubators of democracy, the laboratories of change.

Whether it's on drug policy, education policy, energy policy, or keeping a wary eye on the garrison state that's been created in this country since 9/11, Rand Paul has hit on some of those themes. In terms of winning back that lost demographic, this is one step towards broadening our base.

SJ: You described the Republican Party tonight as the party of Teddy Roosevelt. The contributions of moderate and progressive Republicans like TR, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller seem to have been scrubbed from the party archives. Why is Republicanism today so often identified only with the conservative views of the far right?

JH: Some of it is an outgrowth of the economic turmoil that our country faces. It’s what happens when you have unemployment that reaches close to 10% and a lack of opportunity. I think people become very concerned. There's a level of anger and frustration at a system that doesn't seem to be working, a feeling that people are falling behind. The wealth gap widens. Educational opportunities fall out of reach. I think that results in an intense focus on our economic woes.

SJ: And that gave rise to the Tea Party.

JH: Let's face it: the Tea Party was a fiscal movement. It was a movement focused on debt, and the outrageous spending and bail-outs that were occurring. The fear associated with our economic conditions really spawned that movement, and we're still in that cycle. People are very concerned about the debt overhang, about a dysfunctional Washington, and the inability to solve even the most basic of problems. And that's resulted in a very shrill, although not undeserved, response. And it may also have taken us away from some of the other voices that had a seat at the table during normal times.

We'll see if the Republican Party is able to broaden its base and recapture some of the sentiment that people like Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were able to bring to the debate.

SJ: You said last year that Democrats will eventually become lazy and descend into the crony capitalism that comes with an expanding federal government. Do you see it happening?

JH: First of all, I think we suffer from a serious case of feckless leadership with President Obama. Presidential leadership is indispensable in terms of finding pathways forward, solving problems, and bringing solutions to the table — not using politics during a State of the Union address, or an inaugural address. This is a time for real leadership, and we're not getting it. That, really, is the heart and soul of the problem.

As we continue with a weakened Republican party, it's inevitable that the Democrats will take their eye off the ball. They will grow lazy. They will grow tired. They will lose a sense of connection with the American people. As this continues, we're going to find that we're not well-served by a dominant, one-party system. And that's why everyone — whether you're a Republican or not —should be hoping for a recovery of a strong two-party system. It does give me some hope that if Republicans can begin to pull together and broaden our base, expand our demographic appeal, and get back to the mainstream issues that most Americans care about, we're going to have an opening.

SJ: Earlier this month, Jeb Bush described political reporters as “crack addicts” for repeatedly asking about his presidential ambitions. So ... are you going to run for president in 2016?

JH: (Laughs) You know, this year and part of next year will be about floating ideas to solve the big problems we face today. It isn't about the horse race; it's about rebuilding the fundamentals of the party. Those fundamentals will have to be based on real ideas that people can relate to — providing solutions to our everyday problems.

We're going to be involved this year in defining and talking about some of these big problems. We’ll see where that takes us.