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Huntsman etches a new conservative brand

April 8, 2013, at 8:15 PM

As he decides whether to run for president in 2016, Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, is making a case for a modified conservatism.

Huntsman was an advance man for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and speaking at the Reagan Library here in California last week, he located the origin of his beliefs in what he saw Reagan standing for. "The pride I felt was that of being, even as a lowly advance man, part of a team that was accomplishing the people's work; confronting and solving big problems that allowed the American people to forge a national renewal and close the trust deficit between the country and our political leadership," he said. "That is not an imagined past, that is what President Reagan and the Republican Party did."

That would be, of course, a governing conservatism, one that accepts the reality of modern life and actively works to make government work well. Reagan's vision was less government, more America, but that was a stunt. His legacy is defined by an expansion of the government to pursue the ends and values he believed America should stand for.  

I don't know how Huntsman will reconcile a "problem-solving" government with a government that is far less intrusive and smaller. Yes, the imperfect hand of the free market may help more if government gets out of the way, but deregulation has a history that by no means recommends itself to the present. For government to work, it has to be intrusive to some degree. 

I think Huntsman is wrestling with this dialectic. Again, from the Reagan library:

We need to once again make the United States the world's most competitive economic nation. In some cases, we need to rollback the federal government. In some cases, we need to retool it. But let us be clear, not making a choice to do so is in fact a choice. To equivocate and fight about placing blame without trying to deliver solutions is to accept decline and hand off to our children a diminished inheritance.

Huntsman does not believe that the evils of modern society can be traced back to government spending, even as he calls for more competition and more private innovations in very large areas like education. Getting back to Reagan, Huntsman, if he runs for president, will say that, properly understood, Reagan's conservatism did not reject government. It rejected government where it does not further national aims and ambitions. Fleshing this proposition out could make the Republican primary debates in 2016 rather fascinating.

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