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.