Myrtle Beach, SC—As soon as news broke Sunday night that Jon Huntsman would be dropping out of the Republican presidential race on Monday, the mainstream media narrative took hold: Huntsman was a candidate for 2009, when Republicans were willing to reconsider their approach, rather than 2012. As Reid Wilson wrote in National Journal, “After winning control of the House in 2010, a Republican electorate bullish on its own chances for 2012 was not interested in a message of moderation and pragmatism. Instead, that sort of refocus typically finds better resonance in a party that has just suffered major defeats and needs to recalibrate its image, rather than a party that sees itself on the rise.” Ben Smith wrote in Buzzfeed, “Jon Huntsman had his moment. It was, unfortunately for his presidential bid, the late winter of 2009.”
The only problems with this narrative are that Huntsman isn’t really a moderate and Republicans were never willing to move to the center. From its inception, Huntsman’s campaign seemed to be built more around the notion that he would hold an appeal that was above ideology. He speaks Mandarin, rides motorcycles and was in a high school rock band! Some campaign consultants might think that combination would prove irresistible to voters. That’s not the same thing as being centrist.
It is certainly true that Huntsman was insufficiently conservative for the Republican base at the moment. As Obama advisor David Axelrod said, “He was simply unwillingly to make the Faustian bargains with the Right that Romney has so willingly made.” But those bargains were mostly about style rather than substance. Huntsman’s economic plan was actually to the right of Romney’s. The difference is that Romney, like Newt Gingrich, overcompensates for past signs of sanity by indulging in absurd rhetorical pandering, mainly by painting a totally false image of President Obama. Huntsman, to his credit, took a more measured tone.
But he was hardly above pandering. Huntsman pandered shamelessly to New Hampshire’s sense of self-importance, hoping that he could win their votes through sucking up the most assiduously.
Knowing that his votes would come out of Romney’s flank, he attacked him constantly. But he didn’t attack Romney from the left as such. Rather he claimed Romney’s record of flip-flops raised questions about Romney’s character and rendered him unelectable.
Today, Huntsman endorsed Romney. In fairness, Huntsman may have gone after Romney so aggressively because he genuinely dislikes Romney. He was awfully skimpy in praising the man he thinks should be president, saying merely, “It is time to unite the Republican Party around the candidate best able to beat President Obama. Despite our differences and the space between us on some issues, I believe that candidate is Mitt Romney.”
Huntsman gave the nominating speech for Sarah Palin at the 2008 Republican National Convention, and he still says, “Absolutely she was capable of being vice president.” As to whether he agrees with her views, he took the dodge that, “I don’t know her views in foreign policy, I don’t know what her views are in terms of tax policy and economic policy, but I assume this would be in the tradition of conservative governance.” This is not placing responsible governance ahead of partisan politics or ideology.
Huntsman himself said it best on “Meet the Press”: “I don’t think people should confuse a moderate attitude with a moderate record.” Huntsman has been consistently opposed to gun control and abortion rights, in favor of cuts to taxes and spending.
Nor should people confuse a moderate attitude with a moderate platform. In his efforts to win over the Republican base, Huntsman embraced the extremely right-wing Paul Ryan budget plan to privatize Medicare and block grant Medicaid. He says an individual mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional and that he would have voted against TARP. The area in which he was most notably moderate and sensible was foreign policy. He supported reducing our imperial troop presence, cutting our bloated defense budget and withdrawing from Afghanistan. But Huntsman took some disconcertingly foolish positions in foreign affairs too, most notably saying he would launch a ground invasion of Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. Did he already forget how well that worked out in Iraq?
What made Huntsman so refreshing to liberals is that he was a Republican who would say the earth is round even if Rush Limbaugh declared it to be flat. He believed in evolution and climate change and he supported civil unions. Obviously, liberals would rather deal with Republicans who accept the Enlightenment than those who don’t. But to accept Huntsman as a substantive moderate is defining deviance downward.
Back in 2009 the Obama administration was so afraid of Huntsman as a 2012 competitor that they offered him the Ambassadorship to China. Huntsman was willing to accept that bargain until Obama looked beatable. Where Huntsman got the idea that a reality-based candidate who worked in the Obama administration would excite Republican electorate is a bit of mystery. The most likely candidates are the consultants who profited from his short-lived campaign.
The Huntsman campaign launched with a carefully choreographed event in front of a tiny crowd, and a large contingent of reporters, in Jersey City in June. On Monday he ended his campaign at a quickly thrown together press conference that was reasonably well attended, but by no means jam-packed.
Huntsman emphasized his dignified statesman shtick. “The race has degenerated into an onslaught of negativity unworthy of the American people. The current toxic form of our discourse does not aid [America’s] cause…. Today I call on each campaign to cease attacking each other…. Let’s invest our time and resources in building trust with the American people and uniting them around a common purpose.”
The problem is that Huntsman misidentifies the source of our divisiveness. “Three years ago the President promised to unite the American people. Yet his class warfare has left us more divided than ever.” This is simply false. And this is where the argument that Huntsman could have won in 2009 breaks down. Obama faced a hostile opposition from before he even took office. Remember all those videos of McCain supporters calling Obama a terrorist? Remember the claims that he was not a natural born citizen? Remember when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said his number one priority was beating President Obama in 2012? Remember how not a single Republican would vote for moderate proposals Republicans used to support, such as an individual mandate to buy health insurance? How one of the Republican candidates for president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, talked about seceding from the Union? Remember how Republicans routinely blocked unobjectionable nominees to federal appointments merely to impede the nation’s governance? It is these actions that have polarized the political process. And it is the economic inequality itself, not President Obama’s recognition of it, which divides the public. To blame President Obama for the toxicity of our discourse is neither moderate nor honest.
When Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain dropped out, the Huntsman campaign issued statements praising them. They even prematurely did that when Rick Perry announced he was assessing whether he would stay in the race. None of Huntsman’s competitors blasted out a statement on his departure except for Newt Gingrich, who churlishly crowed that “With Governor Huntsman dropping out, we are one step closer to a bold Reagan conservative winning the GOP nomination.” In that narrow sense of affability and statesmanship, Huntsman certainly does have his Republican competitors beat.
It was no surprise that Huntsman dropped out before South Carolina voted. Ten days before the New Hampshire primary, the Huntsman campaign told me that he needed to finish in second in New Hampshire—where he was making his big stand—to continue onward. When he didn’t immediately drop out after coming in third it was perplexing. Huntsman may have finally found his campaign’s theme, but it was too little too late. After defending his service in the Obama administration at a debate in New Hampshire he made his slogan “Country First.” A plea to patriotism above partisanship might have played well in New Hampshire and catapulted him to a higher place in the polls if he had pushed it all along. But he didn’t. When Huntsman spoke Monday he anachronistically recalled that his campaign launched with “simple theme of ‘Country First.’” If only he had done so, and meant it.