Republican presidential primary candidate Jon Huntsman said it's time his party adopt a more progressive stance on a number of issues at the University of Chicago Thursday evening.
At the event, organized by the university’s Institute of Politics, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China under the Obama administration took questions from journalist and Fox News contributor Juan Williams as well as the audience. In his answers, Huntsman described himself as a solid Republican, but was strongly critical of the direction his party has taken, adding that its doubtful that the GOP will find electoral success in future elections if they do not change.
“The minute we start to divorce fact and science from our public policy debate, we are adrift,” Huntsman said. “If Republicans are going to succeed long-term, we have to be the party of reality.”
Huntsman argued that Republicans should not cater ideologically to the party’s base as it did in the 2012 primary. He criticized the series of debates in the Republican primary as pushing the candidates into increasingly rightward stances on issues.
“At the debates there was a relatively shallow level of discussion. The format doesn’t lend itself to a wide-ranging discussion of issues, which our nation needs now more than ever,” Huntsman said. “What do you try to do when you’re on a presidential debate stage? You try to whip up the audience into a frenzy; and every time you declare war, you get an applause line.”
He said this encouraged the 2012 candidates to recast themselves as more conservative than they ever really were.
“On the debate stage, people tend to try to recreate themselves and their past and I can’t do that, and that’s probably a mistake in today’s political world,” Huntsman said.
Instead of hyping up a particular part of the party's base, Huntsman said Republican leaders should challenge the base to accept more progressive positions on issues such as supporting gay marriage, acknowledging man-made climate change and the theory of evolution, and conducting a more diplomacy-driven foreign policy.
He asserted that a more progressive stance would in fact be more in line with the Republican Party of the past, praising the conservation initiatives of Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower’s construction of the interstate highway system, and Reagan’s willingness to sit down and talk to leaders from countries with which the U.S. was at odds. He acknowledged, though, that conservatives’ consideration of switching positions on these and other issues in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat by President Barack Obama remains highly divisive within the Republican Party.
“It’s a bit like Yugoslavia after the Cold War. Do we need a Dayton Accords to pull people together? We may,” Huntsman said.
After Williams noted that a recent Pew Poll showed public favorability toward Republicans at only 33 percent and self-identified Republicans at only 22 percent, both historic lows, Huntsman agreed that the party especially needs to change its outreach to minority groups and young voters.
“With party politics, it is about the math. If you lose key demographics, you are not going ... to win elections,” Huntsman said.