The Futile Integrity of Jon Huntsman
As you’ve surely heard by now, Jon Huntsman — Huntsman the Formidable, I once called him — has pulled out of the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. His withdrawal at this stage was hardly a surprise. Though he finished a fairly strong third in New Hampshire, where he campaigned relentlessly and into which basket he put pretty much every egg he had, he has never been a viable contender for the nomination. The latest Gallup national poll has him at just two percent, behind even Rick Perry at five percent. He was bound to do poorly in South Carolina, and there was just no way he was ever going to catch on. Though he has some impressive conservative credentials, he’s just not in tune with the right-wing extremism of today’s GOP. Thankfully, though, Republicans are too stupid to know what’s good for them (though, it would seem, not stupid enough to go with Gingrich or Santorum instead of Romney — alas).
What may be surprising is that he stayed in this long without a credible shot at the nomination. Perhaps he really did think that Republicans would survey their embarrassing field of candidates, recognize his strengths and general-election appeal, and give him his turn as frontrunner. But he’s a smart, sensible guy. What’s more likely is that, all along, he’s been running for 2016, anticipating that the extremist GOP may turn back to the center somewhat as the Tea Party continues to loses favor and as possible losses in 2012 send a message that even head-up-their-asses Republicans can’t miss that to win nationally you have to be a Huntsman-style “moderate,” not a hardened, uncompromising ideologue of the right. (Of course, if Romney loses, the takeaway for many Republicans will be that the party loses when it embraces moderation of any kind and that it must go hard right if it wants to win in 2016.)
To his credit, Huntsman ran an admirable campaign. While I certainly don’t agree with him on pretty much anything, and while he’s far more conservative than his right-wing detractors seems to think, he remained generally positive (partly because he had nothing to lose, partly because he didn’t want to ruin his chances for 2016 by burning too many bridges, partly because he’s just not a negative guy), preferring to showcase his integrity than pander to the party’s right-wing base or turn on his rivals.
The problem is that immediately upon withdrawing he endorsed Romney and revealed that he’s much more of a partisan opportunist than his campaign might have suggested. As Kevin Drum writes:
I believed from Day 1 that Huntsman was running for 2016, which gave him way more scope to run a relatively honest and dignified campaign than any of the folks who were genuinely running for this year’s nomination. And yet, Huntsman just never seemed to attract a following, not even the Tsongas / Anderson / McCain-ish kind of cult that presidential elections so often produce. These are the folks who rally around the guy willing to “speak hard truths” and avoid “politics as usual.” The media usually swoons for them too. But not Huntsman. He got a few followers, and a bit of decent press, but that was it. He just wasn’t any good at projecting an intriguing image.
And the quick pivot to Romney just amplifies that shortcoming. Politically, maybe he thought it made him into the kind of team player who was more likely to attract establishment support in 2016. Maybe he thought there wasn’t much time left to make an endorsement that wasn’t just pro forma. But after the savaging he’s given Romney, turning around so quickly sure does make him look like a guy who was just throwing lots of anti-Romney crap against the wall whether he believed it or not.
Who knows? Maybe the story here is that Huntsman just isn’t that great a politician. After all, he is the guy who apparently thought that quoting a bit of Chinese in the last debate counted as a devastating riposte. But I guess he might make a decent Secretary of Commerce.
Or Secretary of State? No, maybe too high-profile? (If he wins, Romney will surely find some spot for Huntsman in his administration.)
It’s a fair point that maybe Huntsman isn’t much of a politician. Beloved by the media — partly because he’s that appealing sort of above-the-fray “centrist” the David Broder-oriented Beltway media love, partly because he made himself so available, partly because he seems so likeable — he never really caught on with the party he purports to belong to. I once thought he was a sort of Reagan 2.0 in that he seemed to have an appealing conservative authenticity, but he’s just not that great a communicator, and of course not the sort of ideologue Republicans demand these days. (Not that Reagan would be all that welcome in today’s GOP either, given his various heresies over the years, but Reagan defined post-Nixonian conservatism, rooted in Goldwater, and more than anyone translated conservative ideology into electoral success. That is, where Reagan defined the conservative zeitgeist of his time, Huntsman is fighting against it.) But is he a bad politician? I don’t think we know. His failure had far less to do with how he is as a politician than with the fact that he’s just not sufficiently Republican for today’s Republican Party.
His quick endorsement of Romney, though, does indeed raise some serious questions. Unlike Newt’s various attacks, Huntsman’s thoughtful criticism of Romney, whom he called “a perfectly lubricated weathervane,” seemed rooted in principle and therefore credible. Perhaps the line between Romney and Huntsman was never all that distinct, but Huntsman did present himself as an alternative to Romney in a way that no other candidate did without resorting to cartoonish caricature and downright dishonesty. But what are we to make of all that now? He’s decided either to be the loyal team player for 2012 or to push for a spot in a Romney administration. Or maybe he never meant all that criticism at all. Maybe it was all for show in the heat of the campaign. Whatever the case, the man who was all about integrity seems to have thrown out his integrity along with his campaign. Indeed, he’s already pulled his anti-Romney ads from YouTube, cleansing his record (and history) of all such negativity — though one of them at least is still available (see below). And he’s also already ramping up the silly anti-Obama rhetoric that makes Republicans salivate and is at the core of Romney’s appeal to the GOP base.
Of course, Huntsman was never what he and his admirers, including those in the media, claimed he was. He frequently went negative, particularly on Romney and Paul, is a hardcore conservative on many key issues (including taxes), and when he needs to can be viciously partisan. Compared to the rest of the Republican field, sure, he was stellar. But being better, in this sense, than Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann (I’ll leave Ron Paul out of it — there’s no doubt he has integrity, however much an extremist right-wing libertarian he may be) is hardly much of a compliment.
And yet I still like him and still respect him — at least as much as I can like and respect any Republican. I can’t say it’s too bad he’s out of the race and never had a shot, because I want the Republican Party to be an extremist party of mostly unelectables. It just makes it easier for Democrats — and, this year, for Obama. But certainly he raised the field a bit closer to respectability and was able to make the contrast between a reality-based campaign and the lies and delusions of his rivals abundantly clear. Which is to say, when he’s around, he exposes just how crazy and just how extreme the Republican Party really is.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)