There’s a well-known story about a 1970s Tory party meeting where new leader Margaret Thatcher waved high a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty before slamming it down on a table and proclaiming, “This is what we believe!” Hopefully, the stirring moment is included in the new biopic starring Meryl Streep.
Anyway, lots of Republicans right now would love a 2012 presidential nominee like Thatcher, one so obviously smart and passionate about the virtue and necessity of economic freedom. They don’t want only to beat Barack Obama, but also rhetorically beat and bury Obamanomics, the latest incarnation of the same wealth-distribution ideology that had infected Thatcher’s Britain back then, almost fatally.
The diplomat. Jon Huntsman clearly isn’t a candidate super comfortable with escalating the 2012 elections into a climactic clash of ideologies. He’s too cool, too diplomatic. Would rather move beyond Obama’s obvious policy failures and talk about where the nation needs to go. Focus on solutions. And Huntsman may well have never read Hayek … or Joseph Schumpeter or Thomas Sowell. If he has, he sure doesn’t talk about them.
But know that Thatcher’s famous Braveheart moment, as deliciously cinematic as it is, most likely is apocryphal. Sure, Thatcher read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom at Oxford. But Thatcherism was really birthed in Alfred Roberts’s little grocery in Grantham as the future prime minister helped her father around the shop and experienced quotidian capitalism up close and personal. A former political ally once said Thatcher had an “intuition” for free enterprise, a gut instinct that was reinforced only later by intellectual argument.
Huntsman has also seen entrepreneurial capitalism operate firsthand, though on a grander scale. Growing up a 99 percenter, he watched his middle-class dad build a company and eventually become a billionaire. He later worked in the family business himself before becoming Utah’s governor and then U.S. ambassador to China.
Tax cutter. Those lifetime lessons have made a big impact. Huntsman, like Thatcher, seems to be a conservative of intuition derived from personal experience. Huntsman a conservative? As governor, he massively cut income and sales taxes—instituting a 5 percent flat income tax—while expanding the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund. His approach to healthcare reform relied on markets rather than mandates. As the Club for Growth describes it, “Utah’s main health reform contained no individual mandate, no employer mandate, and has very limited regulatory authority. … It empowers individuals to take ownership of their own health insurance and to choose coverage that works for them.”
If elected president, Huntsman says he would like to slash tax rates to their lowest levels since before America entered World War I and eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends. Powerful supply-side medicine for an anemic economic recovery. Huntsman has embraced Representative Paul Ryan’s transformational, market-oriented debt-reduction plan, calling it “the model I would work from.” He’s also pro-life, a dedicated free trader and—at least as evidenced by his sweeping bank reform plan—an ardent anti-crony capitalist.
Of course, conservatives would sure like more details about Huntsman’s views on dealing with climate change. And just how would he match defense cuts that might reduce spending to Clinton-era levels with superpower America’s global commitments and power-projection capabilities? A lot more clarity is needed there. And the Club charges Huntsman with being disinterested in cutting spending when governor.
Heavy fire. But a good amount of the flack Huntsman has taken from the Right seems more about form than function. Accepting Obama’s offer to go to Beijing. Giving a conciliatory rather than confrontational candidacy announcement speech. Mucking up the debates with too much snark and not enough talk of conservative tax and entitlement reform. Jon Huntsman (R-Davos), the darling of Manhattan magazine writers. The Republican uncomfortable with being a Republican. Yet the policies Huntsman advocates, if implemented, would usher in a conservative, free-market, small-government revolution that no Tea Party member could help but applaud. No Thatcherite or Reaganite, either.
This isn’t a lesson in comparative conservatism, an attempt to prove Huntsman is more or less conservative than Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, or the rest of the Republican field—or more or less deserving of the GOP nomination. Certainly not. This is about policy, about agenda, and about not ignoring some great ideas because of a candidate’s awkward introduction.