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Reevaluating Huntsman

So Jon Huntsman. How is that going?

He joined No Labels [1], 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 [2] of himself, a jilted moderate in search of a constituency.

He also gave an interview [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6]. 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.

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#1 Comment By steve in ohio On November 29, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

Huntsman could continue to model himself after McCain who after impressing the media in 2000 paid more attention to party activists in 2008. I agree that he might do pretty well in 2016. Also if Rand Paul starts catching on, many in Conservative, Inc., might see Huntsman as the lesser of two evils.

#2 Comment By James Canning On November 29, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

Might one hope that Huntsman takes time to study the relations of Iran and the US over the past two decades?

#3 Comment By Noah172 On November 29, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

Our author glosses over Huntsman’s support of mass immigration, which will be our Republic’s ruin, as well as the ruin of authentic American nationalist conservatism. This post also has no mention of Hunstman’s position on international trade (take a wild guess where Hunstman stands on the free trade/protectionism spectrum).

As for foreign affairs, Hunstman did not merely utter some vague statements on “leaving all options on the table” with regard to Iran. He loudly and repeatedly expressed undying fealty to Israel, vowing “no daylight” (his words) between US and Israeli policies. He was the only Republican candidate foolish/crazy/honest enough to discuss explicitly the use of ground troops against Iran. In other matters, Huntsman favors missile defense in eastern Europe that antagonizes Russia needlessly, and simply assumes, as all of our bipartisan foreign policy elite does, that NATO still has a purpose (not sure where he stands on admitting new member states).

#4 Comment By Michael Brendan Dougherty On November 29, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

Noah,

I didn’t mean to gloss over mass immigration, where I too disagree with Huntsman. Although his position is far from McCain’s it isn’t anywhere near Buchananite.

My qualified “support” for Huntsman is in the context of GOP politics as they are, not as I wish them to be. He was – and is – to my mind, the most acceptable of the electable figures out there. (Although it remains to be seen how electable he is.)

“Undying fealty to Israel” is, I think, a bit strong for the normal reiterations of the fact of our alliance.

I think it is important for us to be able to distinguish between figures like Huntsman, Bush, and McCain since they do in fact have different ideas. My judgement is that there are important gradations between perfect candidates and the worst candidates. You may judge him unacceptable, and I don’t pretend to be able to persuade you.

Best

#5 Comment By Alex M. On November 29, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

I must confess that I visit TAC for a bi-weekly dose of Schadenfreude, where I get to witness conservative apologia and delusion in its most educated elaboration. And since this site almost successfully hides the anti-gay animus that now defines conservatives in America, I don’t get that disgusted, as opposed to other right-wing sites.

Thank you so much for this item on John Huntsman: I laughed out loud. Too funny: the premise that someone as moderate as Huntsman could survive a presidential primary in today’s tea-soaked GOP is completely hilarious. The earnestness with which the analysis is delivered makes the comedy priceless. Thank you.

#6 Comment By Noah172 On November 29, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

Michael,

Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

My judgement is that there are important gradations between perfect candidates and the worst candidates

I know that. Ron Paul is not perfect. Pat Buchanan is not perfect. Calvin Coolidge was not perfect (but close! 🙂 ).

I won’t say that Huntsman has nothing valuable to offer the party. He is, sad to say, a voice of reasonableness on some matters (sad because his reasonableness is more relative than absolute). I just do not see him taking on what I consider the most dangerous sacred cows.

In any case, with regard to Huntsman’s Iran position — which Larison has and will continue to address expertly — a war with that nation would flush whatever good ideas a hypothetical President Huntsman would have down the drain. I don’t accept that Huntsman was just pandering on that subject in the campaign, and if he were, that speaks very poorly of his character that he would trifle with such a life-and-death matter.

#7 Comment By Michael Brendan Dougherty On November 29, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

Noah,

I understand your position. And agree that a war with Iran would be a disaster. But we’ve seen presidents like Reagan and Eisenhower pose much more hawkishly in some instances precisely to enhance their credibility when they stand down.

Daniel is right to hold Huntsman’s feet to the fire. My judgement that Huntsman was obscuring his real thoughts on Iran could be wrong. But I don’t think it speaks very poorly of his character, I think it reveals him to be a politician rather than a prophet.

I’m not sure we’ll ever have a (potentially successful) candidate that takes on the sacred cows. We may have a president that does one day, but that is asking for a lot in a mass democracy.

#8 Comment By Lance On November 30, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

Michael,

You never mentioned one big issue that Huntsman championed–Civil Unions. Although that is starting to seem like a moderate position to many voters now, it is still an unacceptable policy to traditional conservatives (me included).

#9 Pingback By That Was The Week That Was « The Pietist Schoolman On December 1, 2012 @ 9:24 am

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#10 Comment By David Giza On December 2, 2012 @ 11:52 am

I wish that Reps. Walter Jones or John Duncan would run for President.

#11 Comment By skmind On December 4, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

Huntsman is done. He is a Mormon, and the fundagelicals will never vote for a Mormon again for about a couple of decades.

And then he was the black guy’s ambassador to China.

Romney has a better shot in 2016 than Huntsman