Jon Huntsman Joins the GOP Presidential Field. Can He Win?

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will officially announce his candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination next week at the same New Jersey park where Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign. Yet Huntsman’s last job as President Obama’s ambassador to China may prove his biggest stumbling block going forward. He’s in, but can he win? And should the President’s supporters cheer or fear the possibility?

Jon Huntsman Joins the GOP Presidential Field. Can He Win?

Jon Huntsman during his time as Ambassador to China, speaking in Dailan in 2009. Photo credit: World Economic Forum/Natalie Behring

Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien. He was elected Governor of Utah twice, and during his terms the Pew Center ranked the state the “best-managed in America.” When George H.W. Bush named him the U.S. ambassador to Singapore at age 32, he became the youngest head of a U.S. diplomatic mission in over a century. And lest his technocratic resume shock you into thinking he’s a second Nixon, he also dropped out of high school to play in a rock band, and still rides a Harley around on the campaign trail. Yet before he’d even announced at a New York City discussion of Henry Kissinger’s new book that he’d be making his run official next week, Fox News gave him the headline equivalent of a scoff: Obama’s Former Ambassador to China Running For President, Officials Say.

Yes, Jon Huntsman’s most recent job was as the President’s top diplomat in the PRC, and, by all accounts, the partisan opponents got along just fine. Indeed, when Obama nominated Huntsman to the position back in 2009, commentators thought it was a particular stroke of genius: Huntsman was a relatively young and likeable moderate Republican who had co-chaired the McCain ’08 campaign. He appealed to the same sort of hope-and-change “new thinking” centrists that propelled the Obama campaign in the first place. By sending the rival deemed most threatening to his re-election off on an important diplomatic mission, the President built up his credibility with his allies and further dashed the hopes of his enemies, who were left looking towards people like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin to save them.

But this was before the healthcare bill, before the midterm “shellacking” of the Democrats, and before the rage over the anemic economy burst forth in all sorts of incoherent fashions. Huntsman left for China with a party desperate for a new direction. With him and other moderates effectively sidelined, the party found its direction by going away from their strategy of deliberate governing and towards confrontation at all costs. Democrats responded by labeling Republicans the “party of no,” but in a typically Democratic fashion, they ignored the fact that “no” is almost always a simpler argument to make than “yes,” and simple arguments win elections, especially if you can get them down to 140 characters or less.

Now Jon Huntsman is going to have to answer a lot of questions about the “yes” positions he’s taken, beyond merely accepting a job in the Obama administration. For example, he believes that human beings have caused climate damage, and went so far as to cite scientists in doing so. In a base that clings to “Climategate” long after the researchers in question have been cleared, this must seem horrifying. Less of an issue this year is his support of civil unions (though not gay marriage) because most main-line social conservatives are gradually admitting they’re losing their culture war. His ambivalence about his own Mormon upbringing is probably a wash, given that traditional evangelical Christians don’t like Mormons (see this Timothy Egan column from the Times), but when you add all this up, it doesn’t look like the kind of Obama-bashing, magically-tax-cut-your-way-to-5%-growth “centrist frontrunner” the mainstream Republican Party in the Tea Party age seems to crave, let alone what the fringe wants.

To his credit, Huntsman himself admits that he’s got an uphill climb, noting today that he’s “a margin-of-error candidate.” (For what it’s worth, that’s true: Huntsman is polling at 1% according to Gallup, behind even poor former New Mexico Governor Gary “Smoke Weed and Climb Things” Johnson, though Huntsman might get a bump out of an actual announcement.) But he also seems to think that enough Republicans still exist in the primary-voting base that value the ability to win in the general election over throwing red meat to the 25% of Americans that still approved of George W. Bush’s performance the week of the 2008 election. As the Republicans in the House are discovering, “no” wins elections but doesn’t govern so well, and they’ll eventually find voters just want to say “no” to them even more than the policies they ran against.

Huntsman is effectively betting that discontent with the Republican rank-and-file will build to such a point by the time 2012 rolls around that all the candidates who so eagerly hop in bed with them now (Romney, Pawlenty, et al.) will seem like idiot-opportunists. (Tim Pawlenty already does, given his terrible debate performance.) It’s the same sort of “slingshot/long game” technique John McCain employed by doubling down on Iraq at that war’s low point in 2007, and, sure enough, it made him look principled compared to Romney’s focus-grouped candidacy by December. If he can get his opponents looking foolish, Huntsman will position himself as the reasonable alternative who President Obama feared enough to ship out to China, then hope his blend of electability, affability and realism will power him through.

What will his primary map look like, though? He’s already said that he’ll skip Iowa (because he doesn’t support ethanol subsidies, he claims, which is a great way of saying “ain’t no way I’m gonna win early on in Huckabee country”). That leaves three states before Super Tuesday: New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

New Hampshire is currently Romney country: the former Massachusetts governor owns property up there and doesn’t have someone with an emotional connection like McCain to give him grief this time around. However, New Hampshire’s primary is semi-open: unregistered independents can vote in whatever election they choose. Huntsman will try to peel enough of them away from Romney and hope that other “frontrunner-types” (like whoever wins Iowa) knock out some other pillar of Romney’s support.

South Carolina is also still strongly Romney’s turf, but only inasmuch as he’s the frontrunner (remember, Rudy Giulani lead all these states at one juncture in 2007). The only candidate with southern roots that’s polling remotely well is Herman Cain, and after his less-than-stellar debate performance, he may find himself busy dodging accusations of flash-in-the-pan status. Texas Governor Rick Perry might get into the race, sure, but Texas is not the Old South, and both Texas and the Old South will resent insinuations that it is. Huntsman’s PAC built him an organization in South Carolina while he was still in China, and he built on it after his return, emphasizing his need to stay at least close in the third nomination contest. It’s not a must-win, but it’s a “must-finish-in-the-top-three” for him to have any staying power, especially if he finishes second or third in New Hampshire.

Nevada is a caucus state, like Iowa, and also one few people are paying attention to. The Mormon population there is sizeable, and would likely favor Romney over the questioning Huntsman by default (Romney won the state by a wide margin in 2008), but Nevada also shares a border with Utah, giving the voters there an opportunity to admire Huntsman’s handiwork, and the Mormon bloc is not a monolithic entity, at least not in the primaries. Huntsman will need to translate momentum in New Hampshire and South Carolina into a win or very close second-place finish in Nevada in order to pull cachet in the big states that vote on Super Tuesday, though. Otherwise, the Northeastern states will stick with a safe bet in Romney or whoever’s furthest ahead in the delegate count.

In other words: yes, Huntsman has a strategy and a path that might just net him his party’s nomination. Should Democrats and President Obama’s supporters welcome this? Well, you could argue that it would bring a measure of civility and focus on the issues that’ve been sadly lacking from politics recently (or, uh, ever), but let’s be realistic, that’s what they said about John McCain, too. Don’t forget, Jon Huntsman gave Sarah Palin’s introductory speech at the 2008 Republican convention, and he’ll have people surrounding him who’ll make the hard hits even if he decides not to.

On an electoral note, as much as the President will be able to point to Huntsman’s own record of support for the current administration’s policies, it’d be a great mistake to think that a Huntsman candidacy would go over like Wendell Willkie (1940, fairly liberal Republican running a polite campaign with hard-hitting subordinates in the shadow of an upcoming war, lost to FDR) or Barry Goldwater (1964, schismatic new conservative, got creamed by Lyndon Johnson). Discontent with the economy will play a major theme, and Huntsman has experience both in cutting taxes and growing spending that will appeal in the general. He’s well-loved by the press, too: just look how much coverage he gets with 1% support, compared to Gary “Remember Him?” Johnson and his 2%.

But perhaps worst of all for Democrats and progressive types in general, that 25% at the rabid core of the “no” movement that created the current House of Representatives will not have much of an outlet. They’ll swallow their pride and vote for Huntsman, most likely, just like several Southern states did for Lyndon Johnson in ’64. But when a sizable minority stops having its voice heard in the national political sphere, it acts out locally. National support for things like gay marriage and health reform is a matter of demographic time, but the last gasps of the the hard-right that came to power in the eighties under the “Southern Strategy” at its apex will still be here in 2012, almost assuredly taking out their frustrations on state legislatures. Is it better to throw them a bone with a bombastic hopeless candidate like Sarah Palin rather than risk them putting their energies into rewriting history in Texas? If they want to make a run at controlling politics on a more local level in the near future, Democrats are sadly best off putting their cynical faces on and hoping that the well-qualified, rational-talking Huntsman doesn’t make the cut.

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CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article referred to Huntsman as the youngest-ever head of a U.S. diplomatic mission. My friend JR Lentini pointed out my error: the youngest-ever was in fact Edward Rumsey Wing, who became Minister to Ecuador at age 24 in 1869. The State Department’s website helpfully notes that Wing “drank himself to death at his post in 1874.” This is why the foreign service now makes twenty-somethings do work in visa processing first, I guess. If their drinking doesn’t kill them there, they’ll survive anything.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on ...read more

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