Political Animal


June 21, 2011 10:25 AM Huntsman throws his hat into the ring

By Steve Benen

Jon Huntsman Jr., who launched his Republican presidential campaign this morning, recently spoke to reporters in New Hampshire. The New York Times noted the candidate’s interesting choice of words to describe his ideology.

Huntsman refused to make any sweeping or personal criticisms of the president he used to serve; the furthest he would go, pressed by reporters at a news conference in a living room in Hancock, was to suggest that Obama pursued some policies he might not have, like sending the military into Libya. At that same news conference, he also refused, bizarrely, to describe himself as a conservative. Huntsman said he didn’t like political labels, but if he had to pick one, he considered himself a “pragmatic problem-solver.” [emphasis added]

It’s almost hard to believe. In 2011, with the radicalization of the Republican Party reaching levels unseen in generations, a GOP presidential candidate doesn’t even want to call himself a conservative.

And he expects to win.

I can appreciate all of the reasons to take Huntsman seriously as a candidate, at least in theory. He’s the only Republican with any foreign policy experience; his many center-left views might make him appealing to swing voters; he’s been adopted by the ‘08 McCain staff; and the media loves Huntsman to such an embarrassing extent I half-expect editors to start drawing little hearts around pictures of him before publication.

But Huntsman is a moderate in an era when Republicans don’t like moderates.

Huntsman believes “health care is a right,” and Republicans believe the opposite. He believes climate change is real and endorsed a cap-and-trade plan to address is, and Republicans believe the opposite. He supported an individual mandate as part of health care reform, and Republicans believe the opposite. Huntsman wanted a bigger stimulus in 2009 with fewer tax cuts, expressed support for the Affordable Care Act, and has endorsed civil unions, TARP, and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally. Republicans are on the opposite side of all of these issues.

Oh, and he’s also a former member of the Obama administration who called President Obama a “remarkable leader.”

The Republican base has gone to great lengths to target so-called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) in all kinds of down-ballot primaries across the country. We’re to believe this same base will tolerate a moderate as their presidential nominee?

Sure, Huntsman will start engaging in Romney-like flip-flops and try to reinvent himself. And sure, the media’s sycophantic adulation will give the guy a boost his rivals probably won’t enjoy.

But when push comes to shove, what are the chances Republican voters will nominate a former member of Obama’s team who doesn’t even want to describe himself as conservative? Strange things happen, but I’m hard pressed to imagine how anything this strange happens.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • CDW on June 21, 2011 10:30 AM:

    Sounds like he's left of Obama. Maybe we should primary Obama with Huntsman.

  • walt on June 21, 2011 10:37 AM:

    There's also this problem where he gets confused with Mitt Romney. Can the GOP really consider two pragmatic Mormons at once? For Romney, the solution was to finesse his insincerity as a right-wing crazy with pabulum, Mitt-flops, and his surreal reputation as a "job creator". Huntsman would have to do something very similar, and this is where the trouble starts, not just for him but Romney as well. There's this sleeper cell inside the GOP that wants you to think climate change is real and that health-care can be addressed with government policy! And might these infidels be? Glad you asked....

  • estamm on June 21, 2011 10:37 AM:

    Actually, if this guy would run as a Democrat in 2016, he could win.

  • jonas on June 21, 2011 10:38 AM:

    A few weeks ago, I assumed that candidates like Romney and Huntsman would simply say fuck it and throw themselves whole hog at the teapartiers and troglodytes in the GOP primaries, promising to mandate gun ownership for all Americans, implement virginity tests in public schools, cut the federal budget by 50% across the board, etc. This seems to be Pawlenty's strategy. But I think the two Mormon fellows made a canny, but risky, calculation that Bachmann, Cain and Santorum are going to fight it out for the crazy vote and that there just might be a way to the nomination by not being completely insane. I think they're figuring that, come next year, Obama will be beatable, but only by a reasonable-sounding Republican and that most GOP voters will realize this. Since Romney at least seems to be consistently topping the early polls, he may be on to something.

  • joel hanes on June 21, 2011 10:39 AM:

    It seems to me that Huntsman is setting himself up for 2016, after the Tea Partyists crash and burn in 2012.

  • troglodyte on June 21, 2011 10:40 AM:

    I welcome Huntsman to the fray. If he hasnt recanted his transgressions to The Base by now, there is some hope that he will actually talk sense in GOP debates. Where is my popcorn??? I love to watch people's heads explode!

  • T2 on June 21, 2011 10:45 AM:

    Why would a guy who nobody knows- who has actually lived in China for several years- a Mormon (which Gallup says automatically disqualifies him with 20% of voters), worked for the hated muslim nazi Obama, has liberal social leanings, has the richest man in Utah for a dad, has almost zero GOP backing, think he will receive the nomination?
    Because he isn't insane? That seems to be the angle (no pun) he wants to take. But given the facts I just recited, he IS insane if he thinks he's getting the nod. The GOP WANTS an insane nominee....that's why Rick Perry is getting in.

  • Texas Aggie on June 21, 2011 10:48 AM:

    While he has done some flipping, he isn't nearly as bad as Romney and his positions are maybe what this country needs. He'll never get the republican nomination, which is our country's loss, but if he did, there is a real chance that Obama would be in for a race. I don't see that happening with any of the other republican candidates so far listed.

  • Bob M on June 21, 2011 10:50 AM:

    Maybe he'll pull a Lieberman and will end up as Obama's running mate.

  • zeitgeist on June 21, 2011 10:52 AM:

    He's taking a longshot bet that (a) moderate Republicans, particularly educated businesspeople in the suburbs who are not evangelicals, who have been driven out or maginalized by the party, will come out in higher numbers to support someone who speaks to them and (b) that it won't take a huge percentage to win because the crazy wingnut vote will be split 6-7 ways. It isn't an entirely foolish idea, really. It just wont happen because the wingnuts wont all draw evenly, and the wingnut side of the equation will narrow too early for Huntsman's strategy to work. And as long as the media treats Mittens as sane, Huntsman's share of the non-nutter vote is also split.

  • NHCt on June 21, 2011 10:56 AM:

    If he's not either running for VP or 2016, he's just not that bright. I honestly give Bachmann a better chance of winning the nominee than Huntsman, no matter what Matt Bai thinks.

  • evan500 on June 21, 2011 10:58 AM:

    I would find it extremely interesting if he does stick with those views that are more liberal than current Republican orthodoxy. If all the other GOP candidates are trying to out conservative each other, does that leave all the more middle of the road GOP voters to him? Since so many in the GOP have become unhinged from facts and reality, if one of their own calls their bluff by going against some of these ludicrous stances, can he shake up the debate?

  • Bernard HP Gilroy on June 21, 2011 11:04 AM:

    Maybe Amb. Hunstman has noticed that the Obama administration is unfolding as if Aaron Sorkin were really Nostradamus, and he figures that it's time for a moderate Republican to emerge. After all, if not for John Spencer's untimely death, the writers allege that Arnie Vinnick would have won the race. :)

    More seriously, maybe he doesn't really expect to win the nomination. It's not unheard of for someone to enter a primary to move the center-of-gravity. Maybe he thinks that he can pull the extreme right back from the brink a little bit. This is almost certainly wrong, but it might be what he thinks.

    So far he hasn't flipflopped egregiously. Time will tell whether he'll abandon his principles to win over the crazy base, or whether he'll decide he'd rather lose on his terms than win on their. (Especially because, in all likelihood, it's really "lose on his terms or lose on theirs anyway".)

    Finally, the speculation about the 2016 race isn't outrageous, either. Remember, Reagan ran a quixotic campaign in 1976 -- and won four years later.

    ObCAPTCHA: It still stinks. And now it's printing words upside-down. Am I supposed to flip the word or rotate it?

  • atlliberal on June 21, 2011 11:04 AM:

    What you all seem to be forgetting is that in Republican world winning takes precedence over ideology. If they think he's their best chance to regain the White House, then he will become the nominee. Conservatives hated McCain too but he was their best chance (sad for them, god for the country) and they went with it. Don't underestimate the ability of Republican voters to completely support their nominee and justify in their own minds any position changes, because winning is more important than actual governing. Once elected the nominee can be assured to toe the party line.

  • T2 on June 21, 2011 11:05 AM:

    Mitt and Huntsman have too many things in common, white, Mormon, very very rich, ex-gov's, and are on the not-crazy side of today's GOP. But what singles one out in the mind of the GOPTP voter? I truly think that the whip needs to come down - the GOPTP needs to nominate as crazy a person as they can and get this chapter over with. Somehow I don't think they would, in the end, nominate a woman. Who does that leave to fly the "Don't Tread On Me" flag against Obama?

  • dynaboy on June 21, 2011 11:06 AM:

    In open primary states like Michigan, Huntsman might do well. A lot of Democrats, with not much else to vote for, could cross-over and vote on the Republican ticket. That's exactly how Romney "won" here in 2008 and how we ended up with Snyder as our governor, instead of someone even crazier.

  • DRF on June 21, 2011 11:08 AM:

    I think Joel Hanes is correct. Huntsmann is really running for 2016. He's intelligent enough to realize that he doesn't stand a chance to get the nomination in 2012. Even if Romney weren't sucking all of the air and money out of what remains of the moderate wing and Mormon segment of the Republican Party, Huntsmann would probably not be able to successfully compete with the other candidates and potential candidates. He must know this.

    I believe he will position himself as a non-crazy fiscal conservative with foreign policy expertise, with moderate positions on all other issues, in the hope that by 2016 this will once again be the dominant element in the GOP. He may also be thinking that, if the Republican nominee this time is anyone but Romney, he would be on the short list for the VP nomination.

  • Archon on June 21, 2011 11:26 AM:

    If I were Huntsman I would focus on making an electablity argument and do everything I could to prevent Romney from getting the nomination. If someone else besides Romney and Huntsman gets it Obama wins in a romp. Then in 2016 he come in as the "I told you so" father to a chastised Republican party.

  • hornblower on June 21, 2011 11:27 AM:

    Pragmatic problem solving is what made America. He and President Obama belong to the same party.

  • Matt on June 21, 2011 11:33 AM:

    The pragmatist in me wants him to do well, which I would define as lasting two weeks past New Hampshire.

    The animal in me wants to see him savaged to a bloody pulp by the deranged wolves to the right of him.

    Fortunately, I can have both!

  • Grumpy on June 21, 2011 11:34 AM:

    The Republican base has gone to great lengths to target so-called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only)...

    You know who else was labelled a RINO? Her initials are S.P.

    Indeed, the upcoming documentary about her will portray her success at crossing the aisle to achieve her goals with the help of Democrats.

  • desraye on June 21, 2011 12:02 PM:

    You failed to mention he endorsed the Ryan Budget. He also supports the balanced budget amendment. I bet those that want him to primary Obama and think he is to the left of Obama will ignore this.

  • Ken D. on June 21, 2011 12:29 PM:

    I also agree with Joel Hanes: "It seems to me that Huntsman is setting himself up for 2016, after the Tea Partyists crash and burn in 2012." I also think this is an entirely plausible strategy, especially if it accords well with his actual beliefs and he has more intellectual honesty than your average Republican (a low bar). That is not to say it is a slam dunk strategy, but it is plausible.

  • Redshift on June 21, 2011 3:52 PM:

    There seem to be a fair number of Republicans who are angling to be the one to ride to the rescue when the far-right fail parade finally goes over the cliff. The trouble is, as long as they can succeed just by screwing things up badly enough that Democrats can't fix them, it doesn't happen.