Jon Huntsman believes the answer to Republican woes is to adopt the agenda that people mistakenly ascribed to Mitch Daniels:
And if we don’t wind up at the end of the exercise with a mission statement that is one sentence long, then we’re toast. That one statement ought to be, ‘Balance the budgets and get out of people’s lives.’ And you ought to build the party around that because we have strong libertarian roots that go way back to the early days of the Republican Party.
When Daniels raised the idea of a “social truce,” this is what almost everyone thought that he meant: ignore social issues and emphasize fiscal issues as an electoral strategy. As it happened, Daniels was making a statement about the severity of the country’s fiscal problems rather than proposing that any changes be made to the party’s other positions. Huntsman is arguing that the GOP should discard or de-emphasize its views on social issues (which he seems to deride as “fringe” issues) and focus on deficit reduction instead. As Daniels discovered, the backlash to what conservatives thought he was saying was quite strong.
Huntsman is explicitly promoting the idea that so many wrongly imputed to Daniels, and there is every reason to expect that it will be received just as poorly. The proposal is bound to be a non-starter for the millions of people who vote Republican primarily and sometimes solely because of the party’s positions on social issues. Take those away, and the modern Republican coalition will crumble. The GOP has done a terrible job of serving the interests of large numbers of its voters, but they could at least fall back on the belief that the party represented their “values.” It is unclear whether anything Huntsman is proposing would improve the GOP’s economic agenda, but he would make sure that the second is no longer the case.
One major flaw in Huntsman’s proposal is that combining social liberalism and fiscal conservatism has typically proven to be the weakest pairing when it comes to appealing to large numbers of voters. Since Huntsman is making an explicitly political pitch, it’s fair to judge his proposal by the popular appeal it would have. While Huntsman describes this as a return to “libertarian roots,” it seems to have a lot in common with predictable “centrist” preoccupations: abandon social conservatism, and obsess over deficit reduction above everything else. Yesterday Michael advised Huntsman that he should “play the part of reformer” rather than present himself as a moderate, but if Huntsman’s comments this week are any indication he has definitely decided on the latter.