While House Republicans’ Medicare overhaul has become a lightning rod for criticism and has even given Democrats an advantage in a special congressional election, it’s also given one putative GOP presidential contender not known for his conservatism a way to gain traction among the party’s right-leaning base.
Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China who is now laying the groundwork for a potential presidential run, faces a challenge: the perception that he’s “barely a Republican,” a charge leveled in March by former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a key powerbroker in the early primary state Huntsman is visiting this week.
(PICTURES: Potential GOP Presidential Contenders)
Huntsman, who was twice elected governor of Utah before heading to Beijing, accepted stimulus funding for his state, favored civil unions for gay couples, and even supported the cap-and-trade energy plan.
But in an interview on Thursday with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Huntsman used fiscal issues, and particularly the Medicare proposal developed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to align himself with his party’s fiscal conservatives as his debut before voters begins.
“I would've voted for it, including the Medicare provisions,” Huntsman said. “What is really scary I think to me and I think most Americans is our debt. And we've got to be bold, and we've got to have, I think, proposals on the table that perhaps in years past would've been laughed out of the room.”
His position is in sharp contrast to a potential competitor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose own presidential campaign experienced an ugly week that began when he criticized the Ryan plan as “right-wing social engineering.” Voters, fellow candidates, and Ryan himself knocked Gingrich’s comments, leading him to apologize to the Budget chairman.
“Having candidates out there putting forward specific ideas, being willing to stand behind specific solutions, is a very encouraging sign,” Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney said of Huntsman’s remarks. “It’s something that Senate Democrats, the president, and others in this town need to do more of.”
Huntsman’s move doesn’t just set him apart from Gingrich and other candidates, like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who have praised Ryan without endorsing the plan. It also helps counteract an emerging narrative that could hurt his potential campaign in the eyes of GOP voters.
“People are just beginning to get to know what Jon Huntsman is all about,” Kristen Soltis, a Republican pollster at the Winston Group, said. “Being positioned as someone who is supportive of a bold solution to our debt problem is a much better way for that introduction to happen than if the narrative is the ‘Obama appointee.’ ”
Using the fiscal debate to establish his conservative bona fides will be important, especially with budget concerns dominating public debate so far among the GOP’s activist base. The last week has shown how significant Ryan’s plan is as a signifier of fiscal seriousness, regardless of Republican leadership’s decision to set aside the plan fspor the year and the unanswered policy questions around the viability and priorities set out by the budget resolution.
This article appears in the May 20, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.