The White House expects Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, to resign his post this spring to explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, top Democrats said. ~Politico
I still don’t understand what he’s doing. It’s not as if Republicans have spent the last two years clamoring for another John McCain-like candidate, much less someone who endorsed McCain early on and surrounds himself with a lot of McCain advisors. If these reports are correct, Huntsman isn’t just doing this as a “centrist” protest candidate in the time of the Tea Party. He isn’t running to promote civility and public service. Presumably, he wants to make a serious bid for the nomination, either as a way to set up for a successful run later or in order to win in this cycle. The problem is that everyone understands that he has no chance of making a serious bid for the nomination, so why do it?
The common assumption seems to be that any success that Huntsman does have will come at Romney’s expense. Personally, I find that very satisfying, and Obama supporters should be pleased by the prospect of a Huntsman campaign. If I were a Republican partisan, I would be a bit concerned that Huntsman could do just enough damage to Romney by peeling off moderate voters that an even weaker nominee manages to win. Huntsman isn’t a credible candidate to win the nomination for all the reasons that have been laid out in the article and elsewhere, but he could be a spoiler in many primaries. Moderate Republicans who might like Romney (or at least the pre-2005 Romney) could look to Huntsman as a former governor with a record of competent management without any of the insufferable phoniness of Romney, and fiscal conservatives who don’t trust Huckabee, aren’t excited by Daniels, and can’t bring themselves to back Johnson might find Huntsman as a suitable alternative. Some national security hawks might prefer that their views be associated with a candidate who has a reputation for being knowledgeable. Huntsman would probably be as hawkish as most of the others, and his background could lend credibility to otherwise bad arguments. If there’s one thing the GOP doesn’t need, it’s a McCain foreign policy articulated by someone who can’t be quite so easily dismissed as ignorant or ideological.
What intrigues me about Huntsman’s campaign is that it seems to make no sense at all. Something else I find interesting about it is that he will be the only 2012 candidate who has been elected to office and possesses foreign policy experience. His presence in the primary field will draw attention to the lack of experience that all of the others have, and it will make the attempts of Romney, Pawlenty and Thune, among others, to claim expertise in foreign policy seem even more ridiculous than they already do. It can’t help the eventual GOP nominee that Huntsman will have been pointing out his lack of qualifications on national security and foreign policy in debate after debate. Then again, Huntsman can’t be a particularly effective critic of Obama’s foreign policy as someone who was responsible for advancing the administration’s China policy, which neutralizes the one clear advantage he has over the others.
Update: Dave Weigel doesn’t understand it, either. Josh Green guesses that this is how Huntsman sets the stage for making a more competitive run in 2016. The trouble with this interpretation is that anyone running in 2016 will probably be running against Obama’s policies (assuming Obama is re-elected), and so association with Obama will probably have become more of a liability inside the GOP by then. Had a Democrat appointed by Bush run for president in 2004, he would have done badly, but not as badly as he would have done running in 2008. It may be that Huntsman thinks that 2012 might be his best chance. Perhaps he believes that his prospects, as poor as they are right now, will keep getting worse as time goes by.
Second Update: Ezra Klein wonders how Huntsman’s campaign could go anywhere. Chris Cillizza offers the “case for Jon Huntsman,” which drives home just how bizarre a Huntsman candidacy is. For Cillizza, the fact that no one knows who Huntsman is could help him, since “Republican voters desperately want new and different people running for office.” One small problem with this is that the “new and different people” in question succeeded by opposing incumbents who held views similar to Huntsman’s. I’ve already addressed the limited value of Huntsman’s foreign policy experience.
The one advantage that Huntsman might have is that he could argue that he is more electable in a general election, but that requires him to make the argument that he believes that conservative positions on a number of issues are political liabilities. He may believe that, and it might even be true in some cases, but it won’t win over primary voters. Huntsman might be more electable than many of the others (assuming that his hypothetical nomination didn’t cause a drop in turnout and defections to third parties), but that by itself isn’t going to get him the nomination. Finally, Cillizza mentions that Huntsman is a “reformer with results.” Really? Part of the case for Huntsman is that he can effectively imitate the Bush 2000 campaign? That was a lackluster campaign that won the nomination solely on Bush’s name, fundraising and connections. Huntsman doesn’t have the name or most of the connections, and he is not going to be anointed as the front-runner. Republicans have nominated moderate “reform” governors from the West to their presidential tickets (with Palin as VP) in the last three cycles, and it hasn’t gone well. If this is the case for Huntsman, there is no need to make the case against.