In an interview at BuzzFeed’s New York offices Monday, former Utah Governor, Ambassador, and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman assailed his fellow Republicans for their slowness to accept mainstream science, called on his party to revamp its positions on key social issues, and coyly hinted at his own future presidential ambitions.
It was, in other words, the quintessential Huntsman interview.
In his most recent media tour, the moderate Republican has been preaching a sermon he’s preached many times before, first as an ambitious newcomer to the national stage, then as a fledgling presidential candidate, and now as co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels. The words may change (slightly), but the message is always the same: Now is the moment for the GOP to cast off its old, outmoded dogmas and reinvent itself for the future.
“We’re going to have a lot of painful discussions,” he said Monday. “The autopsy will continue, and all of that should be acceptable. We have some rebuilding to do. We shouldn’t be sensitive. We shouldn’t shy away from pointing out our deficiencies.”
When it comes to highlighting his party’s deficiencies, Huntsman has never been shy. In fact, his ascent to national notoriety has been fueled and fed by regular, headline-grabbing attacks on the GOP — a habit that has turned him into every Democrat’s favorite Republican, and every Republican’s favorite punching bag.
It began in 2009, when Huntsman, then a popular governor from Utah, told Politico that his party had “drifted a little bit far from intellectual honesty,” and that President Obama’s landslide victory should prompt the GOP to rethink its positions on gay rights, climate change, and immigration. After then serving as Obama’s Ambassador to China, he returned to the states in 2011 to join the Republican primaries, warning viewers of ABC’s This Week, “The minute that the Republican Party becomes the… anti-science party, we have a huge problem.” When he eventually dropped out of the race, Huntsman complained in an interview at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan about the conservative intransigence he confronted on the campaign trail: “This is what they do in China on party matters, they punish you if you talk off script.” And in recent weeks, he’s given interviews to The Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, The [London] Daily Telegraph, The Ripon Forum, and a host of cable news shows, during which time he’s said his party is “devoid of a soul,” and asserted that Republicans view compromise as “analogous to treason.”
Reminded of some of his sharper critiques Monday, Huntsman blamed the soundbite-obsessed news media for making his comments come off more negative than they were intended.
“Typically, you’ll get a headline from an interview that will speak to the most salacious — not sentence, but clause, and they’ll ignore the other 99 wonderful, uplifting things you said about Republicans,” he lamented. “So, to some extent, the dialogue suffers from a dumbing down. Whatever will move content, because media companies make money by moving content.”
But he didn’t walk back any of his attacks either, and he went on to reiterate many of the same points he’s been making for years — that Republicans need to become pragmatic “conservative problem-solvers” (a term he used often during the campaign), that the party must to prepare for a “demographic shift,” and that conservatives have “a tremendous opportunity with young people” if only they will drop their more alienating rhetoric.
One question he didn’t answer: Why keep preaching this same message after years of failing to convert his party?
Huntsman’s prescriptions were viewed as earnest and even plausible in 2009, when Republicans were engaged in their last soul-searching phase, and a party-wide tack to the middle seemed like a conceivable outcome, but today conservatives largely see his lectures as opportunistic at best, and scornful at worst. During the campaign, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer seemed to capture the conventional wisdom on the right when he wrote Huntsman off as a “liberal’s idea of what a Republican ought to be.”
Without credibility among Republican opinion-makers, what does he think he can accomplish?
He strongly rejected the notion, floated by many of his critics, that he is simply in it for the TV face time.
“I haven’t asked anyone for a single interview. I don’t do that,” he said, adding, “I’d say we take about 2 percent of the media requests that come in. Really.”
Nor has he given up hope that his party will eventually come around to his brand of Republicanism, relying meanwhile on regular chats with independent-minded politicians — as well as the magic of Hollywood — to keep faith alive.
“It’s not just about pandering to one group or another, it’s about courageously transforming our content,” he said of his vision for the party. “You don’t have to forget your origins. You can remember Abraham Lincoln. I walked out of Lincoln, thinking, ‘Go Republicans!’ All these Republicans [were] doing the right thing for their country, and I say, here we have a movie that’s about Republican governance and we’re not even reflecting on this proud moment in history.”
Despite the suspicions of his conservative critics, he promised his motives were pure, and that he was grateful for whatever seat at the table he could get.
“I’m just honored to even have a voice that matters a little bit,” he said. “A lot of people dream to be part of the policy mix.”
But as he wrapped up his visit to BuzzFeed, Huntsman resurfaced another thread that’s run throughout his four-year mission to moderate: His omnipresent ambition.
In 2010, after spending the year prior speaking frequently about the direction his party needed to take, he hinted to Newsweek that he might try to take the reins. “I think we may have one final run left in our bones,” he said, a winking soundbite that launched a thousand columns and cable news segments about Whether the GOP Was Ready For Jon Huntsman.
This time, he gave an updated version of that wink when asked whether he’d consider running again in 2016: “There’s a whole lot of serendipity built into politics, and if you’re going to be a public servant, you have to live in some degree of serendipity. And that’s experience and opportunity colliding.”