In the last week or so a lot of conservative pundits have surveyed the Republican race and asked themselves, “Has it really come to this?” With most conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney having been successively eliminated, the current anti-Romney standard-bearer is Newt Gingrich. The only problem is Gingrich’s record, which is neither clean nor reliably conservative.
As Conn Carroll of the conservative Washington Examiner puts it, “The reality of Newt as the embodiment of everything the Tea Party hates about Washington will ultimately be his undoing. So who will be next? If the conservative media, both establishment and insurgent, is to believed, it could just be Jon Huntsman.”
Huntsman is fighting a losing battle with the margin of error in most national and state polls, but in New Hampshire, where he has staked all his campaign’s hopes, he is currently polling in third place behind Gingrich and Romney.
A series of pieces from both movement and establishment conservatives have recently made the case for Huntsman. These writers run the gamut from slightly idiosyncratic intellectuals, (George Will of the Washington Post, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Brendan Dougherty in Business Insider) to doctrinaire activist partisans (Red State’s Erick Erickson).
The pro-Huntsman pieces generally make the same points: he governed Utah as a fiscal conservative, earning high ratings from the libertarian Cato Institute, his presidential campaign platform is fiscally conservative and he was never for abortion rights, gun control or an individual mandate to buy health insurance. (They may be unaware that, as Sarah Kliff reported in Politico, Huntsman was willing to consider an individual mandate in Utah.) An added wrinkle is that Huntsman’s realist foreign policy calls for reducing our entanglements abroad to save money. That’s a distinct contrast from the extreme hawks, except for Ron Paul, who fill out the rest of the GOP field, and it is appealing to paleoconservatives who opposed the Iraq War, such as Will.
But the conservative base is unlikely to reconsider Huntsman the way conservative intellectuals have. The reason can actually be found within some of the endorsements of him. Consider the tease on Dougherty’s profile of Huntsman in The American Conservative: “The former Utah governor speaks like a diplomat, but he’s no moderate.” Speaking like a diplomat, and sounding more moderate than you are, is an asset in a general election and during a presidency. In a Republican primary, on the other hand, it is deadly. The conservative base does not want diplomacy, it wants vituperation.
Look at Will’s argument for Huntsman, and you see a crucial fallacious assumption: that Republican primary voters care about policy. Will writes:
[Huntsman] endorses Paul Ryan’s budget and entitlement reforms. (Gingrich denounced Ryan’s Medicare reform as “right-wing social engineering.”) Huntsman would privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Gingrich’s benefactor). Huntsman would end double taxation on investment by eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends. (Romney would eliminate them only for people earning less than $200,000, who currently pay just 9.3 percent of them.) Huntsman’s thorough opposition to corporate welfare includes farm subsidies. (Romney has justified them as national security measures—food security, somehow threatened. Gingrich says opponents of ethanol subsidies are “big-city” people hostile to farmers.)… Between Ron Paul’s isolationism and the faintly variant bellicosities of the other six candidates stands Huntsman’s conservative foreign policy, skeptically nuanced about America’s need or ability to control many distant developments.
Does a Republican primary voter in Iowa favor eliminating subsidies for corn? Does a typical middle-class, home-owning Republican support privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Support for the free market is a rhetorical position for rank-and-file conservatives, not a principle strong enough to withstand any conflict with their own self-interest. (For an example, read Joe Klein’s description in Time of Romney contending on the campaign trail with Iowa Republicans who don’t want their ethanol subsidies to expire.)
For many Republicans, nominal fiscal conservatism is really about the culture war rather than economic policy. When I interviewed attendees at Newt Gingrich’s Staten Island Tea Party town hall meeting on Saturday, the grievances articulated were not inefficient programs like farm subsidies. It was an inchoate anger that some vaguely defined band of derelicts refuses to work and demands handouts. Sometimes the malefactors are hippies occupying Wall Street. Sometimes they are illegal immigrants. But they are never farmers.
What about Huntsman’s opposition to unnecessary military spending or foreign interventions? The people I interviewed would have no use for that. “Don’t you think we need a strong military?” demanded one woman. “After September 11 we had to do what we had to do,” she said, by way of justifying the Iraq invasion. (One man told me, in language unsuitable for a family magazine, that he admired Bush’s handling of the Middle East. Suffice it to say that he equates belligerence with manhood.) When it comes to foreign policy, the Republican base isn’t philosophically conservative. It’s nationalist. Nationalism is also what essentially defines their economic views. It’s not about getting out of the way of the Invisible Hand, it’s about Us versus Them.
When viewed through that prism, farm subsidies are a good policy not a bad one. Of course they are wasteful and market distorting and no actual economic conservative would support them. But is your average Iowa Republican an actual economic conservative, or just an angry old white person who hates “big-city” people? Funding for mass transit? That’s a boondoggle for the lazy others, the “big-city” people. But farm subsidies? Well, that’s a program that benefits good, hard-working Americans. It’s actually rather amazing that Will has spent the last four decades as an intellectual leader of the conservative movement without coming to terms with this contradiction. I wonder, then, how he explains it to himself when conservative activists shout at a town hall meeting to “Get your government hands off my Medicare.”
As for the more engaged fiscally conservative activists in the primary states, they say Huntsman doesn’t even have a prayer. Some commentators, such as Douthat, say this is the fault of the Huntsman campaign for allowing mainstream magazines to write glowing profiles of him and for picking “high-profile fights on two hot-button issues—evolution and global warming—that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale.” Huntsman did not propose an ambitious agenda to deal with climate change, he merely acknowledged its occurrence. Presumably if Huntsman pointed out that the earth is round and revolves around the sun, Douthat would blame Huntsman for picking a needless fight with conservatives, instead of blaming for conservatives for deciding that accepting modern science is a disqualification for the Oval Office. (Note that it is Douthat, not me, who asserts that Huntsman’s belief in Enlightenment reasoning is why he is languishing in the polls. I went to Huntsman’s announcement speech, before he made those comments, and I didn’t think he had much of a shot even back then.)
“Huntsman has a very strong economic program and a very good record as governor,” says Phil Kerpen, vice-president for policy at Americans for Prosperity. “There are two concerns for conservatives: his [past] support for cap and trade and the Western Climate Initiative and his willingness to work for Obama [as ambassador.]”
Those are, indeed, the objections to Huntsman echoed by state-level Tea Party leaders. “I don’t think Huntsman has had a chance since he got in,” says Ryan Rhodes, a state coordinator with the Iowa Tea Party. “I’ve never known a single person who’s a Huntsman supporter or would be willing to consider that. He worked for the Obama administration and that’s an absolute taboo. It doesn’t matter what [the job] is, the grassroots sees [the Obama administration] as what they want to beat.” This is an understandable sentiment. Can you imagine Democrats nominating a veteran of the Bush administration in 2004?
Earlier in the campaign season Erickson wrote that he would never support Huntsman because of his tenure as ambassador. Interestingly, Erickson’s argument was not that Huntsman is not anti-Obama enough because he took the job. Rather he argues, somewhat persuasively, that once Huntsman signed on to represent the United States in China—our most important contender for global power—he had a patriotic duty not to undermine the president by laying the groundwork for a campaign to challenge him.
Erickson recently reiterated that point, but went on to say, “[Huntsman has] never flip-flopped on abortion, the need for tax cuts, etc. I still find it shocking that the guy running as the liberal in the race, or at least the media accepted moderate, came up withe [sic] boldest, most conservative economic plan.” But, Erickson is quite open about the fact that his feelings about Huntsman are driven by tone rather than substance. “To even get me to half-way take him seriously though, I think he’d have to get rid of [campaign manager] 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.” If putting out a conservative economic plan doesn’t show you are a conservative, what does? Making sure your tweets don’t show too much book learning and treating right-wing activists with appropriate deference, apparently.
Conservatives identify inadequate nationalism as a source of unease with Huntsman. Gingrich cleverly capitalized on this when he spoke in Staten Island by offering Huntsman this backhanded compliment: “I’m not fluent in Mandarin, so Governor Huntsman will have an advantage” in their upcoming one-on-one debate.
“He's too much of a globalist,” says Jane Aitken, New Hampshire coordinator for Tea Party groups. “I had not seen anyone come out for Huntsman in the beginning so I would be surprised if anyone would be for him now. We want someone who is pro-America, and will slash departments and budgets severely.” The problem, of course, is not that conservatives don’t know what they want, or that they haven’t been clear about it, it’s that they can’t find a candidate who they trust will deliver it for them.