So Jon Huntsman. How is that going?
He joined No Labels, a group that has no constituency beyond a few elites who dislike partisanship and want “problem-solving” in Washington. I’m reasonably certain this decision has a lot to do with Huntsman’s personal friendships with people in the group. But the move absolutely makes it seem like he is conforming to a caricature of himself, a jilted moderate in search of a constituency.
He also gave an interview to the Huffington Post and there is a mixed bag in there. He calls for immigration reform, compromise on fiscal issues, and for dismissing the neoconservatives and the GOP’s recent militarism.
Last year TAC gave me the chance to profile him. I spent a decent amount of time following him around New Hampshire and then interviewing him in his D.C. home. I went in to the experience prepared to stick a few journalistic blades in him. Here was a guy who seemed to be badly misreading the mood of the party. He had promised a friendly and respectful campaign against Obama. His media team was making sure that Esquire and Vogue got good access to him. His campaign manager, John Weaver, seemed to have one very counter-intuitive idea in his head: you win New Hampshire and the GOP primary by running your campaign as if it were a blood-vendetta against conservatives. There was that whole to-the-manor-born affect, too.
But as I did my research I was surprised. There was a conservative case for Huntsman–a good one. No, he doesn’t speak in the kind of populist anger that has spread throughout the whole party. But he signed all the pro-life bills that were sent to his desk in Utah. And he had enough clout that he could have made sure they never landed there in the first place. He liberalized gun laws. He lowered taxes. He had a knack for getting good “buy in” on his policies, even shepherding the LDS Church to accept liberalized liquor laws in Utah. He participated in Western state climate talks, but rejected the simplistic and uneconomical “solutions” on offer.
In his talks and in his interviews with me it was clear Huntsman separated himself from the neoconservative consensus. No he wasn’t a non-interventionist, but he emphasized that the future for America was not in Libya or the Middle East, but in the trade routes to Asia. He refused to say much about the Iraq War beyond a politic “no comment.” I leave it open to more uncharitable interpretations. But my thinking was that this answer came at precisely the moment when it was easy for Republicans to say, “The surge worked, and Obama is going to pull us out too quickly.” Although I would have welcomed him to say something more clear about Iraq, giving a much more explicit anti-Iraq War answer to a journalists at TAC would have been perceived as pandering, and probably misread.
Daniel Larison will be quick to remind us of his statements on Iran which seem too hawkish. I think Daniel is right to criticize the statements but I took them as the aberrations of trying to campaign in the GOP primary. You emphasize that all options are on the table for Iran to balance the dovish direction of your criticisms of Obama in Afghanistan. I didn’t love the “nation-building at home” line he used. But I’m not the GOP electorate, am I?
Total it up and you had a realist Republican, with massive and credible foreign policy experience, who was also pro-life and untouched by the pathologies of conservative movement politics. On paper that is the candidate I dreamed of having in the GOP within a two decades of the Iraq War. As an opinion journalist, I guess I felt free to share my high opinion of him. I was probably his most convinced supporter within the conservative press, broadly defined.
To me he looked like a mature choice, not just a howling protest vote. He was self-possessed in a way that I have never once encountered in a major politician. And the substance of his campaign was substantive. He endorsed the Ryan plan as a step toward reforming entitlements (a risky but smart move, in my book). His policy shop came up with a daring plan for financial reform to end the Too Big Too Fail guarantee that is distorting our banking sector and Wall Street.
But he ran a poorly conceived campaign. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Huntsman name in Utah is so good he hardly had competition there. His first real electoral challenge was for the presidency itself, and it involved scrumming in a volatile field.
There is a tendency to dismiss candidates for failing, even once. It is a stupid temptation. Many presidents lost in their first run badly. Others survived a pathetic showing to have influence later. (Think of Ron Paul’s run in 1988, or constant underperforming in 2008 for that matter.)
So even today, Huntsman is one of the only Republicans with anything sane to say on foreign policy. Whereas Ron and Rand Paul have persuaded some grassroots conservatives with their non-interventionism, Huntsman commands respect in professional foreign policy circles for his realism. The GOP needs both strains to recover. And so, if I’m looking at the landscape for 2016, I still rate Huntsman ahead of Jindal, Christie, Rubio, Bush, McDonnell, and many other potential nominees.
I wouldn’t want him nominated for the Obama state department, as Leon Hadar suggests. I think he can make an electoral comeback, but it would be hard and difficult work. It would be impossible if he were in Obama’s second-term cabinet. His temperament gives him a disadvantage with a certain band of GOP primary voters who confuse expertise with ideological treason. But he has the credentials to make himself acceptable to most conservatives, and the substance to do so with the party at large. Instead of casting himself a moderate, he should play the part of reformer. Instead of being aloof from a party that has defects, he should just assume a position of intellectual leadership within it.