Transcript: Exclusive Interview With Jon Huntsman

I sat down for an exclusive interview with Jon Huntsman yesterday. Here is the full transcript and CLICK HERE for the full story.

George Stephanopoulos: Governor, thanks for doing this.

Jon Huntsman: It's an honor.

George Stephanopoulos: The threshold question for any Presidential candidate. Why you, why now?

Jon Huntsman: We're getting close to making a decision. Why now. I'll start by telling you that I love my country. Second, I will tell you that we are at a very serious inflection point in terms of where this country goes. It's a discussion about whether or not we are 21st century competitive, which plays into our quality of life, our ability to project a confident and effective foreign policy. Everything gets right to our core strength as a nation. And our core is weak. And this is not a discussion that you can put off for years. It's a discussion that is taking place now.

George Stephanopoulos:But you went to China a couple years ago, saying you didn't know if you'd be doing this. And I know you know that with a lot of Republican primary voters, the number one question is -back there somebody just came up to me at the event, saying 'does he have a chance? He worked for Obama?' What's the answer?

Jon Huntsman: I worked for the President of the United States. The President asked me, the President of all the people. And during a time of war, during a time of economic difficulty for our country, if I'm asked by my President to serve, I'll stand up and do it.

George Stephanopoulos: So you'd do it again?

Jon Huntsman: I'd do it again. Of course. I've always been … trained, and I hope to train my own family that when your country needs you, particularly in a critical and sensitive bipartisan position, which is the U.S. ambassador to China, that you -- if there is the prospect that you can get in there and bring about change in a way that helps your country through public service, I'm there.

George Stephanopoulos: The President is also a person, a particular person, President Barack Obama, who, you wrote to him, saying, calling him a remarkable leader. Do you stand by that?

Jon Huntsman:He chose me. A Republican, and I wrote that to him by way of a thank you note. And thank you notes are a proud tradition for a lot of people. And it's a good thing that people don't go through George Bush Senior's thank you notes, because he wrote a lot of them. And I do a lot of them too. And it was my way of expressing what I thought about his election.

George Stephanopoulos: But I'm asking what you think about him now. Do you believe he's a remarkable leader, and are you in sync with his foreign policy?

Jon Huntsman: History will show how effective he is. In terms of foreign policy, we have a generational opportunity, George, to reset our position in the world. And it must be done based upon our deployments in all corners of the world, wherever we find ourselves, how affordable those deployments are, whether it's a good use of our young men and women. Whether it's in our core national security and interest. We're fighting an enemy that is far different than any we have got before. It's a nontraditional kind of war, and I think we need to step back, recalibrate how we go about protecting our borders and protecting our people, and resetting our position in the world.

George Stephanopoulos: But what does that mean? Is the President fighting that war effectively today?

Jon Huntsman: It means that we have too much in the way of boots on the ground in corners of the world where we probably don't need it. It means that we must prepare for an asymmetrical kind of response. It means that we probably don't need to be in certain parts of the Middle East where there are domestic revolutions playing out. Where we probably just ought to let them play out.

George Stephanopoulos: Is that Libya?

Jon Huntsman: Libya would be among them.

George Stephanopoulos: You'd stop enforcing the no-fly zone?

Jon Huntsman: Well, I would have chosen from the beginning not to intervene in Libya. I would say that is not core to our national security interest.

George Stephanopoulos: You also said, in the event, that a draw-down in Afghanistan is inevitable. So would you begin it today?

Jon Huntsman: I would tell you that we have to evaluate very carefully our presence in Afghanistan. And my inclination would be to say that it is a heavy and very expensive presence we have on the ground. That at a point in time where we need to be looking at our asymmetrical threats, what we have in Afghanistan today is not consistent with how we ought to be responding.

George Stephanopoulos:Let's talk some domestic issues. A lot of Republicans -- again, Republican primary voters -- are going to wonder about your decision as governor of Utah to take the stimulus funds, President Obama's stimulus funds. And when you were asked about it, you suggested that one of the problems with the stimulus is that it wasn't big enough. Is that what you still believe?

Jon Huntsman: If you read on in that interview, you will find that I was specifically referring to corporate tax cuts, payroll tax deductions, and focusing the stimulus in infrastructure projects that would improve our economic future.

George Stephanopoulos:But you also aligned yourself with Mark Zandi, who said the stimulus ... had to be about a trillion dollars.

Jon Huntsman: That was his take. And my take was, let's stimulate business. Let's look at tax cuts, let's look at payroll tax deductions. If you read on in the interview, that's exactly what I said. But more than that, George, a specific focus as opposed to just giving dollars to states. And let's face it, every governor took it.

Mark Sanford in South Carolina was the only one who stood up and said, ‘I'm not going to take it,’ and in the end, he ended up taking it too. We as governors, our states, we all make contributions to Washington. And when stimulus dollars are coming back, you ultimately found that every governor took those dollars.

George Stephanopoulos: So no apologies for taking the stimulus funds if I'm hearing correctly, and you might have wanted more stimulus, but it would have been more tax cuts.

Jon Huntsman: A regret that it was not properly focused around that, which would really stimulate the economy, tax cuts, and it was not focused around enhancing our infrastructure, and preparing ourselves for the future.

George Stephanopoulos: Let's talk about health care. It's going to be one of the core issues for this Republican primary --

Jon Huntsman: I do believe.

George Stephanopoulos:-- as well. Would you repeal President Obama's health care?

Jon Huntsman: If I had a chance to repeal it, I would. But then you have to say what goes in its place, and I think the answer to that is look at what all the states are doing. All the states that are incubators of democracy, are experimenting on their own. They're coming up with novel solutions. In our own state, we came up with, I think, what was a very novel approach to closing the gap on the uninsured. To harmonize medical records -- which was a major step in getting costs out of the system. So once the incubators of democracy do what they are best equipped to do, I think Washington then learns what works and what doesn't work.

George Stephanopoulos: How about Congressman Paul Ryan and (the) budget? Former Speaker Gingrich had some trouble talking about that this week. If you were in Congress, would you have voted for it?

Jon Huntsman: I would've voted for it.

George Stephanopoulos: Including the Medicare provisions?

Jon Huntsman: Including the Medicare provisions. Because the only thing that scares me more than that is the trajectory that our debt is taking. And the trajectory that our debt is taking now beyond $14 trillion is going to have an impact on our currency. It goes south, and our currency's going to have an impact on our standard of living and affect every family in this country, and over time, our international competitiveness. So 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. And we've got to look seriously at them. We don't have a choice. We've hit the wall.

George Stephanopoulos: Would you vote to increase the debt limit?

Jon Huntsman: I would vote to increase the debt limit if there was a corresponding level of cuts. And if there was some serious talk about a balanced budget amendment, which we as governors always had to deal with. I know it sounds unlikely. It's been discussed before. But I'm guessing if you went out to most of the American people, you'd probably hear that that's something that they would see as totally rational.

George Stephanopoulos: And that would be your condition?

Jon Huntsman: My condition would be a corresponding number of cuts that would be commensurate with whatever--

George Stephanopoulos: What Speaker Boehner has called for?

Jon Huntsman: What he's called for. We've raised the debt ceiling in ten years, and look where we are.

George Stephanopoulos: You invited the voters at that first event to look at your record. And by (UNINTEL) record, we see someone who supported civil unions for gay couples, supported having the children of illegal immigrants be able to pay in-state tuition in your state, supported cap and trade in the past as an energy policy. Every single one of those could be a big problem in the Republican primary. How do you deal with it?

Jon Huntsman: Well, first of all, I don't change on my positions. The circumstances change, like on cap and trade, for example. You know, today our focus -- although we all care about the environment, today our number one priority's the economy -- and we should not be doing anything that stands in the way of economic growth. And that which is going to move us forward in terms of expanding our economic base and creating jobs, period. That's not to say that all the while, you won't have people who are creating and innovating new approaches to dealing with emissions. That's going to continue.

George Stephanopoulos: But back in 2008, November of 2008, the beginning of the emissions, you said that dealing with those emissions was either going to take cap and trade or a carbon tax. Is that still true?

Jon Huntsman:And that was exactly what CEOs were saying, and that's exactly what all the experts were saying, and that's exactly what a whole lot of governors are saying at that point. The economy collapsed. We can no longer focus on that debate as aggressively as we did in years past. But that debate will continue because people care about the environment. But I suspect that the end point it's going to look a lot different than that original proposal. And we also have to remember, George, that this is an international challenge.

If we come up with our own approach, and if the Chinese who are now the largest emitters in the world don't go up with their own, if the Indians don't come up with their own, we're all downstream. And if we unilaterally disarmed, we're disadvantaged economically. That point comes home loud and clear when you're living in Beijing, the most polluted city in the world. And you step outside and say this is a huge challenge. And all of this gunk, all of these emissions, they're going somewhere. And everyone's downstream these days. It's got to be an international fix.

George Stephanopoulos: On civil unions and on immigration, no walking away from your past positions?

Jon Huntsman: No. No. I think, in the case of civil unions, I think it's a fairness issue. I believe in traditional marriage. But subordinate to that, I think we probably can do a better job when it comes to fairness and equality. And I don't believe in penalizing the younger generation coming across our borders who have no say whatsoever over their journey and destiny.

They want to integrate into the American system. If they're willing what needs to do be done and work hard, then I think if we're giving them an in-house tuition break, that integrates them into the system, and makes them part of ultimately contributing to our country.

George Stephanopoulos: We're just about out of time. I just have two more questions. One comes from one our viewers. And it's from Joelyn Singley of Salt Lake City, Utah. And she says: "The recent comments from Mr. Huntsman confused me as to his religious affiliations. Is he a practicing Mormon or not?"

Jon Huntsman: I believe in God. I'm a good Christian. I'm very proud of my Mormon heritage. I am Mormon. Today, there are 13 million Mormons. It's a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people. And you're going to find a lot of different attitudes and a lot of different opinions in that 13 million.

George Stephanopoulos: Is it going to be an issue in this campaign?

Jon Huntsman: And I probably add to that diversity somewhat. I don't think so. I think people want to know that you, if you get in the race, are going to be a problem solver. A pragmatic problem solver who's going to look laser-like on jobs and keeping this economy moving forward in ways that will maintain our preeminence in the world. I think everything else that people like to talk about, in many cases, are less relevant. In fact, some-- some are sideshows.

George Stephanopoulos:Final questions. I know you're going through due diligence now. Is there anything that could stop you from running?

Jon Huntsman: My wife. (LAUGHS)

George Stephanopoulos: What do you think (off camera)? She's smiling, no comment. But you're just going to consult with your family and that will be the final?

Jon Huntsman: That's the final decision. You either feel it inside, or you don't. You don't need people who whisper things in your ear. You either have a conviction about our place and time in history, and the importance of broadening and expanding the debate about some of these key issues, about jobs and the 21st century competitiveness, it is that core we spoke about earlier. Our core is weak. And when our core is weak, so is every aspect of what America projects.

George Stephanopoulos: Are you feeling good after your first event?

Jon Huntsman: Yeah, listen … it was a sheer delight interacting with people and getting questions from all conceivable political corners. I enjoyed it. New Hampshire's a unique state, and I hope we see more of it.

George Stephanopoulos: We'll be back up here with you. Thank you very much, Governor.

Jon Huntsman: Thanks, George.

The interview took place in Hanover, N.H. on May 19, 2011. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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