Jon Huntsman Jr. is most widely known for his bid to become the Republican presidential candidate in this year’s primary season. However, he has spent more than a decade in public service, and during his tenure as governor of Utah, the state was named the Best Managed State in America by the Pew Center. He also has served as the U.S. ambassador to China and to Singapore. LN caught up with Huntsman just after he arrived in St. Louis this week, for his Maryville University St. Louis Speakers Series appearance.
LN: What have you been up to since ending your presidential campaign?
JH: I’ve mainly been merging back into private life, starting to do all those things I wasn’t able to do in the past 12 years working as a public servant. I’m chairing a cancer institute, as well as a cyber-security task force, which evaluates the risks posed by cyber-intrusion. I’m also on a couple of corporate boards, Ford Motor Company and Caterpillar among them. In the meantime, I’m also trying to be a good dad to my seven kids.
LN: Do you feel like you got your message out during the campaign?
JH: If you don’t cross the finish line, it doesn’t end as you would hope. But to the extent that I was able to get in and broaden the discussion about reality-based solutions for our country, the need to bring people together during a time of real challenge, and address things like the trust deficit—which is just as corrosive over time as the fiscal deficit—that would suggest it was time well-spent. The outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for, but there wasn’t a bad day on the campaign trail. It was a great honor and privilege to wear the shoes of candidate for highest office in the land and participate in the debate at that level. It was just a thrill.
LN: Would you ever consider running again?
JH: You have to be a little crazy to do it once and outlandishly crazy to do it twice. You probably need to let a year go by and get the cobwebs cleared from your head, and I’m not there yet. Maybe it’s for a discussion in the future, but it’s hard to know how history will play out: Who will be president in the next election cycle, if issues you feel passionately about will be central to the nation’s conversation, if you’ll be marketable as a candidate. There are lots of elements at play, and you have to really sit down and analyze them.
LN: What are some of the top issues you think voters should keep in mind when they’re deciding how to vote in this election?
JH: They need to focus on our three key deficits and who is best positioned to improve them. The first is the fiscal deficit; the second is the trust deficit, and that’s where is the president going to take on status quo—campaign finance reform, big money and politics that are ruining our democracy; the third would be what I consider a confidence deficit. We need a leader who, in inspiring and hopeful terms, can rally all of us as Americans regardless of party affiliation. Those are the most salient things in this election. But how people will make the decision is a highly personal thing.
LN: Have you worked with either of the candidates personally, and how does that affect your view of them?
JH: I haven’t worked with Gov. Romney; our governorships overlapped for a couple of years, but I didn’t get to know him. I got to work with President Obama when he assigned me to China. As with the defense department, some positions rise above partisanship and I was honored to be in one such position. I respect President Obama as someone who has tried to lead through inspiring words; but in the end, I think he falls short.
LN: As a former ambassador to China, you’ve been harsh of the country’s human rights record. Have you seen China becoming more open, or do you expect it to improve in the coming years?
JH: It’s an issue—and it will remain an issue—when you have a one-party system where that one party retains all the accoutrements of power and has actually taken steps in the wrong direction in terms of liberalization and human rights. Some of that can be attributed to transition politics—every 10 years they have a major transition where new generation of politicians steps up. We’re a year or so out from that in its final form, and typically a harder line is taken by the leaders during that time. People will be watching for signs of real confidence in both the political and economic sides between now and mid-2013.
LN: Many people see China as a threat or competitor to the U.S.—do you see them that way, or could there be a positive partnership?
JH: A little bit of both. We have to realize with China’s rise will come challenges. You can’t go from $0 in trade to $400 billion in trade in a decade or two without some serious wrangling on issues like intellectual property rights, financial services reform, or any number of big issues we’d like to see them move with greater dispatch on. That aside, there will be enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs here in the states, especially as China moves its currency in a direction more consistent with market valuation. They’ve been slow to do it, but they’re moving in that direction, and as they do we’ll be more competitive as an export base. I see the future as being full of real opportunities.
LN: What do you see as America’s biggest challenge in the coming years?
JH: The debt problem is the biggest challenge right now. When you run debt that is 100 percent of the gross national product, it inhibits your ability to compete on the world stage and makes it difficult for new businesses to start up and for new jobs to be created. It hampers our income stream because of reduced productivity; and when you lessen income stream, you’re not able to do things for schools and roads, or basic infrastructure and energy needs, all of which need to be addressed in the 21st century. And it’s a very unfair thing to pass down to next generation. I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or Republican—that is one issue that really needs to be addressed and managed for us to make our system work.