Whether someone like Huntsman will be the Republican nominee in 2016 depends almost entirely on what happens these next ten months. If Romney wins the nomination and loses to Obama–both of which seem likely right now–then we’ll likely see a swing to the right in 2016, as it would reinforce in the nominating electorate the notion that nominating moderates is a recipe for disaster. If Romney wins the nomination and beats Obama, he will, barring tragedy, be the nominee in 2016 and 2020 will proceed along something like the current path, with no lessons being learned.
That may be true, but James doesn’t explain why the “swing to the right” didn’t happen after McCain’s nomination and loss. McCain was perceived as the relative moderate in the 2008 field with some justification. He won the nomination, lost the general election, and despite this example the new relative moderate Romney still seems poised to win the nomination anyway. Arguably, the current version of Romney campaigns as more of a conservative than McCain ever did, so one could object that there has been something of a “swing to the right” in Republican presidential politics. At the same time, Romney also has a far longer record as a genuine moderate Republican than McCain had, which suggests that something else has happened. So it doesn’t seem to be a given that a Romney loss this year would produce a more conservative 2016 field and nominee.
What James doesn’t spell out is quite what he means by “someone like Huntsman.” If by “someone like Huntsman” he means a Western governor with a
more “centrist” position on immigration, we endured two terms of his administration in the last decade. If he means a candidate who publicly supports war with Iran and a “centrist” position on immigration, we already had that in the 2008 nominee. If instead James means someone running something like Huntsman’s 2012 campaign, it is very likely that there will be “someone like Huntsman” in the race because there will be no shortage of candidates endorsing Paul Ryan-style entitlement reform, WSJ-approved tax reform, and uncritical support for Israel. Huntsman is much more like McCain than I originally thought in that he tends to be “centrist” on certain issues when it will put him at odds with most of the country, and then stubbornly hard-line on issues when a more accommodating, flexible position would be both popular and wise.
Update: The Politico story James cited included this passage:
He’s a throwback of sorts to the Wise Men era, when wealthy, credentialed men veered between diplomacy, politicking and money-making. He name-drops George Kennan in debates, boasted no less than four times in his Concord speech that he had lived overseas and, when it was noted at the end of the interview that he was heading up to Bretton Woods for an evening event, his eyes lit up in recognition of the historic nature of the resort where the post-World War II international monetary system was devised.
What Martin doesn’t mention in his report is that Huntsman’s frequent references to Kennan mostly show that his understanding of Kennan’s views is superficial at best.