Can Jon Huntsman’s Jobs Plan Resurrect His Campaign?

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Jon Huntsman is mired in the cellar of presidential primary polls and battling the perception that his brand of conservatism may be better suited for a bygone era. His campaign needs a jolt of energy, and he’s hoping that the economic agenda he outlined during a Wednesday speech at a Hudson, N.H., manufacturing company will provide it.

Huntsman’s plan, titled “Time to Compete,” has four main policy components: tax reform, regulatory overhauls, energy independence and free trade. His prescriptions for restructuring the tax code are his most noteworthy. Huntsman would propose significantly lowering individual and corporate tax rates. His plan would flatten and broaden the tax base, simplifying the system by establishing three tax brackets at 8%, 14% and 23%. He wants to court capital by reducing the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% and providing a tax holiday for the repatriation of profits accrued overseas. If he had his druthers, he would eliminate capital gains and dividends taxes, and do away with the Alternative Minimum Tax. The whole proposal would be revenue-neutral, because Huntsman also calls for scrapping all tax loopholes, deductions and subsidies, including staples like the mortgage-interest deduction.

While he’s at it, Huntsman would dismantle the “complex and convoluted web” of regulations that he says are shackling American businesses. He would repeal the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation — passed in the wake of the near-economic meltdown triggered by over-leveraged Wall Street banks — as well as the Affordable Care Act. Huntsman urges scaling back the EPA’s “serious regulatory overreach,” such as the agency’s effort to impose checks on ozone levels, and advocates streamlining the FDA approval process. In a fig leaf to South Carolina voters, he also said he would instruct the National Labor Relations Board from its attempt to block the construction of a proposed Boeing plant in the Palmetto State. And he makes vaguer calls to expand free trade opportunities and secure energy independence. Beyond the details of his economic agenda, Huntsman makes the case that his international experience gives him a window into how to steer the U.S. in an increasingly competitive economy. “As the Obama Administration has dithered, other nations are making the choices necessary to compete in the 21st century. I’ve seen that first hand,” he said.

After vowing to run a positive campaign, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China has repeatedly jabbed his Republican rivals in recent weeks as he fights for a foothold in a crowded field. In his speech Wednesday, Huntsman sought to portray himself as uniquely prepared to govern in grim times. “Meeting our challenges will require serious solutions, but above all, it will require serious leadership — a quality in high demand in our nation’s capital, and among my opponents on the campaign trial,” Huntsman said, according to prepared remarks. “It was just four weeks ago that I was the only candidate to stand up and support a compromise to save our nation from default — which would have triggered calamitous consequences for our economy. President Obama never even offered a plan of his own.” (This isn’t true; Obama haggled extensively behind the scenes with House Speaker John Boehner to craft a sweeping plan to avert default that included a tax-code overhaul, among other features.)

Huntsman has been framing himself as a rare GOP candidate grounded in reality, in stark contrast to opponents who don’t believe in evolution or question the veracity of climate science. (He released a new web video on Wednesday that underscores the point.) There’s little question that fiscal conservatives will welcome Huntsman’s call to close the array of loopholes and deductions riddling the tax code. “I’m not running for president to promise solutions,” he said, according to the text. “I’m running to deliver solutions.” He just doesn’t say how. Take, for example, the swaggering vow to tell the denizens of a dysfunction Capitol that they needs to clean house. It’s hard to imagine that this will suddenly coax Congress to slaughter sacred cows like the mortgage-interest deduction.

Huntsman is the first Republican candidate to outline his economic agenda in more granular terms than the platitudes typically deployed on the campaign trail. (Mitt Romney will follow on Sept. 6, a day before Barack Obama has requested a joint session of Congress to put forth his own.) The location Huntsman picked for his address — a New Hampshire manufacturing company — was thick with symbolism, not just because Huntsman has made revitalization of America’s rusting manufacturing industry a priority, but because he’ll need a strong finish in the Granite State to become a legitimate player in an increasingly stratified GOP primary. He’s hoping Wednesday’s speech is the first step toward shaking up that pecking order.