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Why conservatism produces bad candidates

Conor Friedersdorf unpacks [1]RedState guru Erick Erickson’s comments about why Jon Huntsman is, on paper, a solid conservative nominee for the GOP, but would never work. Conor:

By Erickson’s lights, Huntsman is more reliable and substantively conservative — he even has the bestposition on taxes, job growth, and deficit reduction — yet he is still said to be “running as the liberal in the race.” Yes, I know what Erickson means. Huntsman has deliberately levied criticisms at fellow conservatives, been conciliatory toward the media, and adopted the rhetorical style of a centrist, in much the same manner as Daniels. What I wonder is why Erickson puts style over substance in placing him on the political spectrum, and deciding whether or not he is worthy of support.

As if to underscore the absurdity of his criteria, Erickson goes on to say that “to even get me to half-way take him seriously… I think he’d have to get rid of Jon Weaver and show conservatives he actually is a conservative. Thus far, from his jokes at debates to his tweets, he’s come across as condescending. But he does like Nirvana. That’s something.”

So let’s sum it all up. If elected, Huntsman would likely behave in a way true to his relatively conservative record in Utah. Erickson likes his proposals on most issues, including the ones he finds most important. But in order to take Huntsman seriously, Erickson is going to need him to a) hire a new campaign strategist; b) make different jokes; and c) send different Tweets.

This is frivolity.

Read the whole thing.  [1] The conservative base prefers the candidate who would do better on a Fox News interview than in, you know, governing the country. This undoubtedly accounts for the clown Herman Cain’s continued success in the polls. The scandal isn’t that Herman Cain will probably collapse under the weight of sexual harassment charges. The scandal is that someone of his unbearable lightness got as far as he did on sloganeering and charm.

Did you read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s great TAC profile on Huntsman [2], making the case that he’s a serious politician and a serious conservative? Check this snippet out:

“I think it was through actual legislative victories that members of the legislature looked at us and thought, he is actually getting stuff done,” Huntsman says. His approval ratings got as high as 90 percent at several points during his years as governor. Initial reservations about him melted, and his legislation began passing with massive majorities. His gigantic tax-reform package sailed through both houses of the legislature unanimously.


“I have an easy rule of thumb,” says Hughes summing up his feelings on Huntsman. “If someone walks into the room and you cut $400 million in taxes and do school reform with him, you vote for him for president.” He turns fiercely protective of Huntsman’s credentials whenever a conservative outside Utah uses the word “moderate” to describe him.

“There’s a style he has that gets misinterpreted, and that’s a diplomatic style,” says Hughes, “he has reached out to all Utahns, and some people have mistaken his diplomatic approach for being a moderate. If you get to know the guy, his rudder is in the water.” Hughes has a point. For the past two decades a “moderate” Republican was one who generally didn’t side with his party on three issues: taxes, guns and abortion. Huntsman’s record on those isn’t just to the right of other moderates, it is to the right of most conservatives.

But he knows how to talk to liberals and he doesn’t pander to the conservative base. Can’t have that, I guess.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Why conservatism produces bad candidates"

#1 Comment By Jaybird On November 9, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

Five words:

Turn. Off. The. Talk. Radio.

#2 Comment By Reader On November 9, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

Jon Huntsman supports the Third World invasion of the US. End of story.

#3 Comment By React On November 9, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

sorry but even when Friedersdorf makes OK points i can’t stand his pedantic, more logical-than-thou writing style. Douthat does a much better job of critiquing the Republican Party cuz he at least articulates a broader understanding of where even their misguided ideas come from and comes from a more sympathetic viewpoint. Conor’s “conservatism” is just some fancy little “i’m different” pin he can put on himself while not actually agreeing with any substantive conservative political causes i can think of, but proclaiming himself an advanced species of conservative only in some pointless, vague philosophical realm.

exact same as the “Obama: political liberal — temperamental conservative!” Andrew Sullivan intellectual wankery, which i’m sure we’ll have another round of in the exciting sequel to his Kerry and Obama ’08 articles about how Mitt Romney isn’t the true conservative in the race, but a dangerous radical, as demonstrated by his long underwear

#4 Comment By Franklin Evans On November 9, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

Not meaning to throw some (imo much deserved) snark at some conservative opponents of Mr. Obama, this seems like clear evidence of the Republicans thinking they have to beat Obama at “his own game”. They heaped ridicule on the near-worship of Obama the candidate, but want their 2012 candidate to rise to similar stature.

Elections, especially for federal office, have long since been beauty pageants. I find I can’t really complain about that any more, because complaining about reality is like spitting into the wind, and I’d rather go have a cup of coffee.

I’m looking at Huntsman myself. He is not likely to be the candidate, but if he is I’m thinking of voting for him (all other details being equal) just out of protest. I want Obama to do well. He hasn’t shown me he can, not entirely of his own fault, but hey, if the wind changes, I still can’t be spitting.

#5 Comment By Zathras On November 9, 2011 @ 2:21 pm


Do you realize that your criticism of Conor is matches exactly what he criticizes Erickson of doing?

#6 Comment By React On November 9, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

although i did not know Huntsman supposedly likes Nirvana. i give him props for that if it’s genuine. liking the grunge Beatles is–dare i say–conservative

#7 Comment By Jaybird On November 9, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

Huntsman digs Captain Beefheart too:


And be sure to check out his high school yearbook photo:


#8 Comment By Noah On November 9, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

What Reader said.

But just to pile on, Huntsman also supports our insane truckling to Israel. Y’know, just a thoughtful, reasonable, diplomatic guy who would be OK with “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”


#9 Comment By React On November 9, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

well i am a hypocr*te but style over substance can be legit sometimes. there’re writers who i don’t necessarily think are always wrong but don’t particularly enjoy reading.

and unlike whatever right-wing credentials Hunstman might have Conor really is of the pointlessly philosophical pseudocon school. Dreher, Douthat, other guys are pretty constantly critical of the GOP but are also obviously very conservative on their pet issues. i can’t think of one issue Conor’s advocated that could be considered the same.

#10 Comment By Park Hyun On November 9, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

I… I… somehow… second what Noah said.


#11 Comment By Marchmaine On November 9, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

As a disenfranchised distributist, I don’t know or care about this Huntsman thing you are talking about… but I can’t help wonder why you think it is somehow a Republican foible not shared by the other party?

#12 Comment By Rod Dreher On November 9, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

What makes you think I think that?

I don’t know about the other party. I don’t really understand the culture of the Democratic Party, so I don’t know why they come up with the candidates that they do.

#13 Comment By Noah On November 9, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

Park Hyun,


Now go take a shower.

OT: I responded to your last broadside at me on the Nov 4 Herman Cain post. If you haven’t already, I would appreciate it if you read it (it’s the last comment in the thread).

#14 Comment By Marchmaine On November 9, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

I gathered from the Title that it Conservatism is generating the bad candidates, not, say, Modernity.

#15 Comment By Conradg On November 9, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

Whoever Huntsman’s campaign strategist is, he needs to be replaced, because obviously he’s doing a terrible job. Huntsman himself has to face up to the realities of the GOP, and what is required for him to win, and he’s just not willing to do that, which is a bad sign in someone who is supposed to govern an actual country. He needs to get off his high horse and get down in the dirt, and show that he knows how to connect with the people in his party. He doesn’t have to sell himself out, but he does have to recognize the realities of politics in our time, and show that he can be an actual politician, not an above-the-fray policy wonk. You don’t get appointed to this position, you have to appeal to actual voters. The GOP is what it is, and if you want to get their nomination, you have to do it their way, stylistically and whatever that requires. And I say this as a liberal Democrat. I have no pity for Huntsman. He choose to be a GOP politician, he has to play their game.

#16 Comment By Franklin Evans On November 9, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

Marchmaine, I’ve been a registered Democrat since my second general election, and I can assert as an observation of both parties that it is not a foible, it is a tool to gain and keep power. I am easily accused of being over-cynical, but in this case I submit that what we have is a sickness, not a foible.

As a general comment, I like what Frank Herbert (yes, the Dune author) wrote in one bit of dialogue about his future view of politics (paraphrasing here): Power corrupts, no doubt of it, but the core issue is that power attracts the corruptible.

#17 Comment By Conradg On November 9, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

As a lifelong Democrat, I know the culture of the Democratic Party pretty well, and I know that there are rules in our base that simply can’t be broken, and that politicians have to work within to gain support. It’s a very different set of rules, styles, etc., and obviously I think it’s better than the GOP’s or I’d switch parties, but at the basic level you really do have to work with that set of rules and styles, or come up with something so original and appealing that you can remake them. Huntsman obviously is failing miserably on both counts, and I’m not sure he has a real strategy for either. Regardless of his conservative policies, he’s running stylistically as a moderate Democrat, and I don’t think that works very well in his party, and more than running as a moderate Republican would work in ours.

#18 Comment By Richard M On November 9, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

Hello Rod,

What’s happening is that conservatives, like most voters, don’t just vote on issues. They also vote on character.

Whatever Huntsman’s positions – and they are surprisingly conservative at points – the man himself comes across as nothing so much as smarmy, desperate to display his hipness, and keen to court the approval of the media. His sharpest attacks have been on conservatives in the race, i.e., as “anti-science.” He opted to serve the Obama administration as an ambassador abroad, a decision which doesn’t exactly flash conservative bonafides to primary voters, whatever their stripe. In short, Huntsman has done a great deal to ensure that Republican voters aren’t going to even get as far as looking at his position statements, because de facto he’s been running as a centrist candidate. It’s not just because he doesn’t come across well on Hannity & Colmes. There is surely some daylight between the two areas.

We can say what we wish about the current state of much of the Republican electorate. But no candidate is going to get very far with them if he talks in such a way as to suggest he has fairly thinly veiled contempt for most of them.

Why is conservatism producing bad candidates? The fact is, the system by and large produces few good candidates, period. There *are* reasonable, competent conservative leaders out there, but for various reasons this cycle, they’ve chosen to pass on running for president. Some of that is the dysfunctional nature of the presidential campaign system, but some of it is simply idiosyncratic, i.e., being too young (Ryan), having personal issues (Daniels), being too deeply involved in state financial crises (Christie), being encumbered by family history (Jeb Bush), etc.

#19 Comment By Conradg On November 9, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

Also, not coming from the conservative quarter, I’m a bit stunned that Nirvana is considered “conservative”. In what universe, and why? I’m quite fascinated by this notion.

#20 Comment By Noah On November 9, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

“I’m a bit stunned that Nirvana is considered “conservative”. In what universe, and why?”

Some people might say “Rape Me” describes the GOP economic policy.

(I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but the joke was too delicious.)

#21 Comment By Jaybird On November 9, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

“I’m a bit stunned that Nirvana is considered “conservative”. In what universe, and why?”

I don’t think anyone is making the argument that Nirvana was “conservative”, just that they were pretty much an unstoppable rock machine, no matter what your politics are.

#22 Comment By Polichinello On November 9, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

Richard put his finger on the problem. Huntsman looks good on paper, but he held office in Utah, so that didn’t require a lot of political courage on his part. Now that’s running as the preferred candidate of the liberal media, he takes just about any opportunity he can to kick his own party’s base. The only thing that’ll do for you is get you nice interviews on MSNBC.

Even if he didn’t have John McCain’s Disease, his whole rationale for running to displace Obama is undone by the fact that he worked for Obama for a couple of years. That alone looks odd and grasping. You would think he’d have the decency to wait until 2016 or 2020.

#23 Comment By Pyrrho On November 9, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

Conservatism produces bad everything these days, except for Rod and (often) TAC.

#24 Comment By Conradg On November 9, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

Okay, I get that some conservatives just can’t help liking Nirvana, awesome as they were. So is this just some kind of cognitive-dissocance identity thing that goes something like, “I’m so hardcore conservative that if I like Nirvana, they must be conservative too”, rather than making the admission, “Even though I’m hardcore conservative, there are some obviously liberal-modernist things I can’t help loving.” A way of denying the possibility that liberals might have a thing or two going for them that can appeal to everyone, even some conservatives?

Or is there something about Nirvana that actually is conservative, that I’m missing?

#25 Comment By Scott Lahti On November 9, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

“Huntsman digs Captain Beefheart too”

Anybody who likes Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) gets my vote for DJ-in-Chief at the very least. Just the thought of hearing “ [5]” (“Like two flamingos in a fruit fight”) – or perhaps “ [6]” at the inaugural ball is enough to make me “come out to meet the monster tonight”. Another lyric from which would seem to have prophesied the present GOP : “Everything’s wrong at the same time it’s right.”

Meanwhile, over at [3], commenter Cube Zombie is not having any of it:

“This is just cynical, blatant pandering to the millions of Beefheart/Zappa swing voters in purple states.”

#26 Comment By Edward Hamilton On November 9, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

I know, in both hemispheres of my brain, that Huntsman is the best conservative candidate that the Republicans have fielded this year. Maybe in several cycles. But it’s really hard to overcome the personalities of candidates to vote for their raw talents.

Huntsman can’t help but be the person he is, a glib hipster scion of a billionaire whose attacks seems less like acts of conviction and more like verbal eye-rolls. And the majority of middle Americans don’t like that kind of person. For better or worse the president functions in this country both as chief executive and as head of state, and people need to feel proud of their head of state.

Cain is someone who worked his butt off to escape from grinding poverty and become a middling business success. People want to see him come out a winner. Huntsman is a rich kid who dropped out of high school to play in a rock band, and now acts like he can’t believe he’s being forced to share the stage with a bunch of people who don’t know the names of Nivana albums. You can call Cain a “clown” from now until he drops from the race (which I still think is an unfair reduction of a more complicated life), but Huntsman’s temperament is still the one that reminds me more of the insufferable smart alecks and class clowns and goof-offs I remember from elementary school.

Once again, that’s not how I vote. I’d vote for Huntsman before any of the rest of them, if I were voting in Republican primaries. But you’re fighting human nature if you think the rest of the country will ignore those dynamics.

#27 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 10, 2011 @ 12:33 am

Huntsman is the medicine Republicans need. They may not be ready to take it yet. Obama should have been, in the same sense, the medicine Democrats need, but he catered to the party instead of turning it upside down. It may take some time, but Huntsman seems to have the integrity to be honest with voters and with his party, and let them know what they will get if they vote for him. He probably doesn’t expect the nomination this time around, but history suggests that you have to lose the nomination once or twice before you actually get it: Reagan, GHW Bush, did Clinton run in ’88, can’t remember, Al Gore (the CONSERVATIVE Democrat of 1988 who made an issue of Willie Horton), McCain, Romney…

If Democrats are going to be in any position to pick up on the obvious disgust of voters with what the Republicans have offered, they are going to have to find leadership that will break with the inside game Conradg describes. If they do, Republicans will need someone like Huntsman to stay in the game. On a smaller scale, when the Wisconsin legislature tipped Republican, most of the Democrats who lost deserved to lose… not for liberalism, for cowardice, vacillation, and not really standing for ANYTHING. Those still standing didn’t deserve to be in the minority, but the best news was the Democrat who challenged an incumbent in a primary and won handily.

If Hunstman’s tax reform passed UNANIMOUSLY, that means he secured the vote of every Democrat in the Utah legislature. There aren’t a huge number of them, but they do exist. I may vote for him in 2016.