Jon Huntsman’s endorsement of Mike Lee rejects the principles he once embraced, Robert Gehrke writes

He once warned of rampant partisanship, but now the former Utah governor puts his reputation behind one of its worst practitioners.

(Screenshot from YouTube) A screenshot from a Club for Growth ad where former Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr. endorses Utah U.S. Senator Mike Lee for reelection in the 2022 midterm elections. The ad first aired on YouTube on Oct. 26, 2022.

Last night I was trying to watch the Jazz, who were once again doing a terrible job at losing, and kept getting bombarded with the latest ad where former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. endorses Mike Lee and opines about the senator’s integrity.

I can’t say I was surprised, because when Huntsman was governor, Lee was his general counsel. I have no doubt there is a friendship there.

And when Huntsman decided to try another run for governor two years ago and needed help trying to prop up his cred in the Trumpian crowd, Lee was there and endorsed him. Now Huntsman is returning the favor.

So, no, it wasn’t a surprise, but it was still disappointing.

It was disappointing because I’ve always thought of Huntsman as a guy who understands that parties matter, but principles matter more. It’s why he could break with the Republican orthodoxy and embrace common sense solutions on issues like climate change and LGBTQ rights.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s why he accepted an invitation from a Democratic president and stepped aside as governor to fill one of the most important diplomatic posts on the planet. Country comes first, he said at the time, even though it incinerated all of his right-wing bona fides.

Most disappointing, though, is that I am certain Huntsman recognizes the very real threat the deranged partisanship that we are living in poses to the survival of our country.

It’s why Huntsman joined up with the group “No Labels,” a perhaps naive but well-intentioned effort to reshape our politics, to elevate debates beyond party and away from the kind of trench warfare that dominates the current scorched-earth landscape.

“Too many people in Washington believe that leading consists of imposing their will on the opposition. It is true of both parties,” Huntsman said back in 2012. “This all-or-nothing leadership is an attitude that may work on military battlefields or in competitive business markets ... but it’s a recipe for dysfunction in democratic politics.”

Ten years later, the political climate has only become more toxic.

It’s why, just two years ago, Huntsman was on the verge of doing something nobody had done before and running for statewide office as an independent. How close did he come to taking that leap? I have been told it was very, very close. And if anyone could have pulled it off, he could.

Around that time, I wrote a piece urging him to take the leap, because our political system today is fundamentally broken and serves no one but the politicians and their parties clawing for power. Not to mention, I thought he was too pragmatic, too moderate to win a Republican primary. More than anything, we needed to fundamentally reshape the system.

After I wrote those words, I ran into Jon at the Capitol. “I hear you think I can’t win,” he said, clapping his hand on my shoulder with his trademark cocked eyebrow.

“That’s not what I said,” I responded. “I said you can’t win as a Republican.”

“You wanna bet a lunch on it?” he quipped.

Someday maybe we’ll visit his favorite taco cart by the old Sears building.

I only bring this up because Huntsman and Evan McMullin are not all that different.

In McMullin, there is a candidate who actually embodies the characteristics Huntsman has espoused for most of his career: put country first; break away from partisanship; and represent all of Utah — or at least as much as one person can. And in each, there was, or is, the potential to jolt a political system desperately in need of a shock.

Yet Huntsman chose to throw his considerable reputation behind Lee — among the most divisive partisans in the U.S. Senate, a consistent obstacle to solving the big problems we face as a nation and an ideologue who helped sow the seeds of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Worse, Huntsman did it all under the conceit that Lee — a man who voted for McMullin for president in 2016 because Donald Trump posed such a risk to the country and then compared Trump to Captain Moroni four years later — is a man of integrity.

And he did it in an ad paid for by Club For Growth Action, an out-of-state political action committee and one of the most dogmatic and corrosive groups on the political landscape. They don’t care about Utah or its citizens.

I suppose that’s how it works now in politics. Party is religion, sacred above all else. Power is the ultimate objective and, of course, one hand always washes the other. So it’s fair to be disappointed in Huntsman’s endorsement, but we shouldn’t be surprised.

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman Jr. is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit The Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.