Huntsman’s Future Depends on Fine-Tuning His Big Ideas Now: View

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- The presidential campaign of Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has always had the feel of a trial run for 2016. He didn’t bother to compete in Iowa, and his organization in the two upcoming primary states, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31, is threadbare. He fought hard in New Hampshire, though, and eked out only a respectable third-place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, failing to win the breakthrough he sought from yesterday’s primary.

With the campaign headed south, Huntsman’s modest momentum could soon end. That would be a shame for the party: Huntsman could be the Republican that President Barack Obama fears most.

Huntsman hasn’t shaped his views to win over Tea Partyers, ultraconservative Christians or doctrinaire libertarians. He runs between the electorate’s 40-yard lines, hoping to attract social moderates, independents and fiscal conservatives. (Many Republican primary voters’ beliefs are deep in the ideological end zone.)

We share, along with much of moderate America, a lot of common ground with Huntsman, and appreciate that he has emphasized bipartisanship and largely avoided taking cheap shots.

Unlike some of his rivals, Huntsman would pursue deeper engagement with China, where he was U.S. ambassador under Obama, and free-trade deals with India and Japan. He would not be a captive of Wall Street, but would seek to make derivatives safer and banks less risky. He would not be impulsively deregulatory. He even promises to demand full redress of banks’ legal violations in the home foreclosure robo-signing scandal. He doesn’t deny the science behind global warming. As Utah governor from 2005 to 2009, he backed programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and supported renewable energy sources.

Refocus His Views

Huntsman’s economic record is solid: The jobless rate during his tenure as governor averaged 3.8 percent, compared with a national average of 5.5 percent. Still, he needs to refocus his views in two critical areas -- taxes and financial regulation -- if he hopes to withstand the scrutiny that comes with front-runner status, should he gain it this year or in the future.

First, taxes. He backs a version of the “zero plan” designed by the deficit-reduction commission led by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. By zeroing out all tax expenditures -- breaks for mortgage interest, employer-paid health insurance, payment of state taxes and the like -- the plan theoretically would allow the simplification of federal income-tax brackets from the current six to three, far lower ones: 8, 14 and 23 percent.

Simpson and Bowles never endorsed the zero plan, but Huntsman runs with it. At the same time, he would eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends. He says this would encourage investment and create jobs. But it would also disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans, who earn the most income from investments. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that the zero plan would raise taxes for middle-class families by about $1,890 a year; the richest 0.1 percent on average would save $488,000.

The effect on taxes would actually be worse under the Huntsman version because, by ending all tax expenditures, it would erase even the tax credits that struggling households depend on to make ends meet. An example is the earned-income tax credit, one of the most successful pro-work, anti-poverty initiatives the U.S. has ever undertaken. (Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both supported it, as do Simpson and Bowles.)

Contradictory Positions

Second, Huntsman holds somewhat contradictory positions on financial oversight. He would seek to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which he criticizes as overly intrusive. Yet he would break up the big banks -- about as intrusive as anything we can imagine -- by capping bank assets as a percentage of gross domestic product and limiting their borrowing ability.

He would also try to make derivatives safer by pushing for most of the things that Dodd-Frank commands: clearinghouses, minimum collateral requirements, more price transparency. It’s unlikely that any of that would happen without the 2010 law.

These aren’t minor problems in Huntsman’s often appealing lineup of big ideas. If he wants to remain in the presidential sweepstakes, he’ll need to more carefully figure out which regulations are good and which are unnecessary. He’ll also need a clearer goal for his tax overhaul, beyond simplification, so that he avoids fixing one problem only to create new ones. But in a Republican campaign that so far has had plenty of low points, Huntsman’s sensibility has been a bright exception.

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