Michael Brendan Dougherty has a long profile of Jon Huntsman in the next issue of TAC. As Michael explains, Huntsman’s record on fiscal and social issues is actually quite conservative, so much so that it will probably shock some of his new admirers, but there are some obvious exceptions. One thing that caught my attention was the Huntsman campaign’s belief that these exceptions aren’t all that important:

“The ‘moderate’ label will fade away as people get to know his record,” says Whit Ayres, a Huntsman campaign pollster, “There are a few instances here or there, like on civil unions where he strays from what’s thought to be conservative orthodoxy, but Republicans don’t select their presidential nominee by going down a list of litmus test issues and disqualifying people.

Well, yes and no. Some Republicans do exactly this, and they tend to be the ones in influential positions that they can use to build up or tear down particular candidates. Ever since Huckabee and McCain won the vast majority of primary contests in 2008, I have been very skeptical of the ability of movement and party elites to prevail on the rank-and-file to reject candidates they consider to be too heterodox and/or “moderate,” but they can successfully disqualify candidates before they become well-known. Romney in 2008 showed how weak carefully constructed “consensus” candidates can be, and his first campaign revealed the limits of having the approval of these elites. On the other hand, had Romney never received this approval after he re-invented himself, it is doubtful that he would be as competitive as he is now.

Over the last few years, Huntsman has made a point of doing the opposite of what Romney did between 2005 and 2008. He has not been cultivating movement conservatives, and he has acquired the reputation of being the mainstream media’s favorite candidate. This is similar to McCain’s 2000 campaign, but McCain had two things that Huntsman currently doesn’t: a high national profile, and the very vocal backing of many neoconservatives and hawks. Huntsman’s foreign policy views are often quite sensible, which is unfortunately one of the reasons why he has no comparable cheering section among movement and party elites. On top of all this, strong partisans count his service as ambassador in Beijing as a liability and take it as proof of his “moderate” status.

Sensible views notwithstanding, Huntsman dodges questions on the Iraq war, which is one of a handful of the most important foreign policy issues of the last decade. It is an issue that should still be a major test of a candidate’s judgment, and Huntsman’s answer on this is essentially that he doesn’t want to talk about it. This is how Michael reports it:

“Listen, I don’t want to re-litigate the Iraq War,” he says, admitting that he wishes to simply get past this question. “I visited [Iraq] three times as governor, and I’m very, very proud of all our troops in the National Guard. I was their commander in chief. And to this day, all I can say is that I’m grateful for the role that they played and the sacrifices they made, including families who lost and made the ultimate sacrifice. I’ll say no more.”

This is a very unsatisfactory answer, and it is even more when this area of policy is supposed to be one of Huntsman’s strengths. If he supported the war as most Republicans and almost all elected Republicans did when it started, that would hardly be surprising, but it would be worth hearing what Huntsman thinks the U.S. should have learned from it. I’m sure there aren’t many Republican candidates interested in re-litigating the Iraq war (except the opponents who got the question right the first time), but Huntsman has more of an obligation to answer the question than many of the others do. After all, Huntsman endorsed one of the most stubborn Iraq war hard-liners for President in the last election.

Even more troubling is Huntsman’s recommendation for U.S. policy in Iraq now:

Whatever he makes of the original rationale for the Iraq War, Huntsman does believe that the presence of 50,000 U.S. troops “makes it rather difficult for Iran to have a direct shot over to Syria.” It’s an irony. With America having knocked Saddam out, Huntsman concludes that, for now, we must now play the disruptive role he had played in the Shia crescent.

Why? When the Iraqi government is publicly siding with Assad, does anyone believe that an American military presence would stop Iraq’s government from facilitating Iranian activities inside Syria? Why should the U.S. provoke a new insurgency by keeping a large number of soldiers in Iraq beyond the current deadline? As it is, Sadr has even threatened to target military trainers. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq after the end of this year was an awful idea when Pawlenty endorsed it earlier this year, and it remains so now.