Even as Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. doubled down Tuesday morning on his support for John Boehner’s 11th-hour proposal to raise the debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline, claiming that it is now "the only legitimate plan on the table," he admitted that his ideal approach would look more like the sort of "large, comprehensive, $4 trillion deal" that the speaker and the president were trying to hammer out before talks collapsed last week—complete with a broader tax base, lower rates, and a potential increase in tax revenues.
"Tax reform is something this nation needs desperately, and when we get there, we're going to have to keep all the options on the table and figure out how to make it work financially," the former Utah governor told a gathering of 80 media, business, and civic leaders at the Manhattan headquarters of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company. "We've got to stay focused on the revenue side of the balance sheet. Cutting alone isn’t going to restore the light of this country."
But while Huntsman argued that a cuts-only approach would not solve America’s long-term debt problem—a belief the president shares—he also criticized his former boss, under whom he served as ambassador to China until April 30, for failing to lead the country out of the debt-ceiling crisis. “The president called for a new kind of politics back when he was campaigning, and I don’t see any evidence of a new kind of politics,” Huntsman said in a wide-ranging conversation with Tina Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and John Avlon, a senior political columnist for the newly merged website and magazine. "We're stuck in the political morass. When he speaks, it sounds as if they're soundbites from the Democratic National Committee…We're not getting the kind of leadership we need."
When asked how he would solve the current impasse, Huntsman called for an "elevation in leadership" and slammed Obama for what he characterized as the president's "variable" negotiating strategy. Obama should "pu[t] an offer on the table that [he] can stand behind," Huntsman said. "So far as I can tell, there's such variability in the offerings that [Obama] has put on the table, every time people coalesce around one that looks like it might work, it breaks apart."
Huntsman's critical tone represents a sharp break from the first month of his candidacy, when he strove to distinguish himself from his Republican rivals by being civil toward the president, and comes only days after the departure of campaign manager Susie Wiles—a bit of "fine-tuning," Huntsman said, that "need[ed] to take place."
Addressing concerns about the viability of his candidacy in the face of national polls that show him stalled at 2 percent, near the bottom of the pack, Huntsman confessed. "If the election were next week, that would be problematic," and said he needs to raise his profile over the next two to three months in order to compete with better-known candidates such as Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann.
"If by October or November, we're not up to where we need to be, then I would be a little concerned," Huntsman said. "But no one’s paying attention now except insiders. I don't think anybody gives a hoot about what [my] numbers are today."
Despite staking out positions on several hot-button issues that are odds with conservative orthodoxy—he supports civil unions, for example, and once backed a regional cap-and-trade program—Huntsman summed up his campaign strategy as "being who you are," an implicit dig at the GOP frontrunner, Romney, who has long been accused of abandoning his most inconvenient stances for political gain and whom Huntsman described as "a good man" who "has been running for president for a long time."
"I am who I am," Huntsman said. "I'm not going to change and gyrate and run from my record, like some people might. I'm going to run on my record. And I'm guessing that people are going to say, 'I like 90 percent of what that guy has done and what he stands for. There's 10 percent that I have to hold my nose over. I'm willing to do that because he's the only candidate to who can put that coalition together that speaks to victory.'"
Indeed, Huntsman made electability—his potential appeal to moderates and independents as well as Republicans—the centerpiece of his pitch, claiming that it's a quality sorely lacking in the rest of the GOP primary field. "At the end of the day, it's math that we're looking at here," he said. "I see some candidates that get 10 percent here, 15 percent there. A very exciting 10 or 15 percent. But in the end are they actually able to put the numbers together and win?...The GOP should be a big-tent party. We begin to narrow our focus, we lose."