My item on Jon Huntsman yesterday got a fair amount of pushback, not only in comments but also from Salon's Steve Kornacki, who I often agree with. To recap, I was arguing against the idea that it's a smart strategy to run in 2012 as a way of building up for a more realistic shot at the 2016 presidential race.
Kornacki argues that "running a credible first-time national effort can do wonders for a politician's national standing," and that unlikely candidates have been known to turn in those solid first-time efforts. His examples for the first point are Lamar Alexander (or, as he correctly writes, Lamar!) in 1996, Pat Buchanan in 1992, Steve Forbes in 1996, Pat Robertson in 1988, Ronald Reagan in 1976, and Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in 2008.
Of these, I think Reagan doesn't fit, since (as Kornacki acknowledges) his first run was in 1968; more to the point, he was a major force in the party at that point, and what happened to him, in my view, tells us little about the Huntsman case. Buchanan, Robertson, and in my view Forbes also tell us little about whether running and losing would help Huntsman as a future candidate; none of those three ever really had a serious chance of being nominated by a major party, and in fact their candidacies were not, really for the nomination. I certainly agree that if Huntsman's goal is publicity or a Fox News talk show, then entering the nomination contest might help, but that has nothing to do with real presidential politics, so I'm putting it aside.
That leaves Lamar!, Huck, and Mitt. Alexander, it's true, did a whole lot better than many expected in 1996 -- but it's very hard to argue that it helped him in 2000 in any way. Kornacki talks about George W. Bush's campaign as if it came out of nowhere; he says that "under different circumstances, he could easily have been a much bigger player in the 2000 race." I disagree. Bush seemed so strong because the other candidates were weak; he defeated them. The whole point is that running a good race in 1996 didn't make Alexander a strong candidate against Bush.
As for Huck and Mitt, well, it seems a bit too early to tell. Both seem poised to make serious runs. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Romney seems any stronger now than he did in January 2007 -- does he? Huckabee, to be sure, seems a bit stronger now than he seemed to most people in 2007, but perhaps that's because he was just underrated then. In other words, I'm not really convinced -- yet -- that either of them actually has improved by running last time. The main advantage that running gave them is that no one else emerged as a strong contender. That's not nothing, but it's pretty limited.
That leaves the argument that Huntsman could, like Lamar! and some others, catch fire unexpectedly, I just don't see it. Alexander seemed boring in 1995, with no particular reason for anyone to think he'd be the one to break out of the pack, but he didn't appear to have any other significant drawbacks, and who had concentrated from early on the cycle on the early states. That's not true for Huntsman, who is almost certainly unacceptable to GOP groups that care about marriage (and who hold a veto on the nomination), and who also worked for the Obama Administration and, at best, is off to a very slow start. In other words, the problem with a Huntsman candidacy isn't that he's obscure (although he'd have to overcome that as well), but all the other baggage he brings to the race. Yes, the GOP field appears weak so far (although to some extent that's a function of the point in the cycle we're at; lots of candidates who wound up very strong in the past looked weak this far out). I can imagine an orthodox conservative candidate jumping in at this late date and making some noise. Huntsman just isn't that candidate right now.
Update: Kornacki responds. Given that I've done I think four Huntsman items now, which is like three too many, I think I'll just let him have the last word.