[Posted by Karl]
GOP fundraiser/consultant Nathan Wurtzel recently joked he wasn’t sure if I have criticized Jon Huntsman enough. It’s true; I have largely ignored Huntsman due to his asterisk standing in most polls. However, he’s getting a new round of buzz — not just from left-leaning establishment media, but also from conservatives. For example, in despairing of the current Romney vs. Gingrich dynamic, George Will wrote:
Jon Huntsman inexplicably chose to debut as the Republican for people who rather dislike Republicans, but his program is the most conservative. He endorses Paul Ryan’s budget and entitlement reforms. (Gingrich denounced Ryan’s Medicare reform as “right-wing social engineering.”) Huntsman would privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Gingrich’s benefactor). Huntsman would end double taxation on investment by eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends. (Romney would eliminate them only for people earning less than $200,000, who currently pay just 9.3 percent of them.) Huntsman’s thorough opposition to corporate welfare includes farm subsidies. (Romney has justified them as national security measures — food security, somehow threatened. Gingrich says opponents of ethanol subsidies are “big-city” people hostile to farmers.) Huntsman considers No Child Left Behind, the semi-nationalization of primary and secondary education, “an unmitigated disaster.” (Romney and Gingrich support it. Gingrich has endorsed a national curriculum.) Between Ron Paul’s isolationism and the faintly variant bellicosities of the other six candidates stands Huntsman’s conservative foreign policy, skeptically nuanced about America’s need or ability to control many distant developments.
Will is likely downplaying the severity of the defense cuts Huntsman contemplates (as Will is no neocon himself these days). Plus, Huntsman’s supposed flip on climate change is a pander (although he never shared a couch with Nancy Pelosi on the issue). However, James Pethokoukis notes Huntsman’s conservative proposals are consistent with his record as Governor of Utah, not only on taxes and spending, but also on healthcare reform (Huntsman flirted with the idea of a mandate, but dropped it — which is certainly no worse than Romney or Gingrich). RedState’s Erick Erickson earlier walked back his rejection of Huntsman, out of the same frustration seen in the Will piece — and anecdotally, more people are starting to agree.
And yet — as Will noted from the outset — there is Huntsman’s bizarre campaign positioning, which Ross Douthat recently described well:
Huntsman’s campaign was always destined to be hobbled by the two years he spent as President Obama’s ambassador to China. But he compounded the handicap by introducing himself to the Republican electorate with a series of symbolic jabs at the party’s base.
He picked high-profile fights on two hot-button issues — evolution and global warming — that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale. He let his campaign manager define his candidacy as a fight to save the Republican Party from a “bunch of cranks.” And he embraced his identity as the media’s favorite Republican by letting the liberal journalist Jacob Weisberg write a fawning profile for Vogue.
This was political malpractice at its worst. Voters don’t necessarily need to like a candidate to vote for him, but they need to think that he likes them.
This is a large part of why the arguments for Huntsman are generally met with derision from the grassroots. (Note: I don’t generally assume blog commenters to be representative of any larger population, but Huntsman’s standing in most polls suggest they may be representative here.)
While I agree with Douthat about the gross political malpractice of the Huntsman campaign, I also think there was a not-completely-insane theory behind it. The theory is the ideal GOP candidate would be a solid conservative who appeals to the mushy middle. The successful model here would be Reagan, the seemingly non-threatening, happy warrior who could disarm Carter with a chuckle while advocating massive tax cuts and eliminating cabinet departments.
It is Team Huntsman’s execution of this theory that is jaw-droppingly bad. Huntsman has all the condescension and snark of Newt Gingrich, but almost always directed at the wrong targets. Indeed, Huntsman’s campaign has tended to embrace the targets Gingrich has attacked all the way to his current front-running status (This is what happens when you hire Jon Weaver). Consequently, Huntsman, who is as articulate as Romney or Gingrich, gives debate performances that manage to be as off-putting as those of Rick Perry at his lowest.
Huntsman is the Bizarro candidate, a Frankenstein monster seemingly assembled out of the worst features of his major rivals. If you squint hard enough, what he is doing is recognizable as a political campaign, just not one you would expect to see on this planet. If the GOP grassroots were willing to go along with his charade, he might get somewhere — but he hasn’t managed that feat, and time is running out.