Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I wasn't going to bother doing an item on the big "Hunstman in '12" boomlet, but now that it's morphing into the "Hunstman in '12 so that Huntsman in '16" idea, well, sure.

In case you haven't been paying attention, we're talking about Jon Hunstman, former Republican governor of Utah, current Ambassodor to China, and noted GOP proponent of civil unions. He's leaving China amidst rumors, not knocked down, that he might run for president.

So, obviously a candidate who just spent time as part of the Obama administration, and who is off the party line on the gay issue, has no shot at the nomination this cycle. What about the theory, however, that he's positioning himself for the future?

Well, it's nuts. I mean, he might be thinking that -- for all we know, he's thinking that he'll win this time. Politicians are capable of believing all sorts of odd things. but the theory that running in order to get well known for the next time around will work is really goofy.

Let's take it this way. Since reform, the Republicans have nominated either the sitting president or the sitting vice president in 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 2004. They've had relatively open contests, then, in 1980, 1996, 2000, and 2008.

The first two times, there was an extremely obvious candidate. In 1980, they had a two-time governor of the largest state in the union who was the clear leader of the dominant faction of the party for over a decade -- and who had run twice before, including almost defeating a sitting president for the nomination in 1976.

In 1996 it wasn't quite as clear, but Bob Dole was the Majority Leader of the Senate, a former VP nominee who had also run twice before, finishing as the clear runner-up in 1988.

There's nothing Jon Huntsman can do to reach that sort of status, at least without a VP nomination.

In the other two open nomination contests, in 2000 and 2008, there was no obvious candidate. The results? In 2000, a twice-elected big-state governor (and son of a president) won, in his first try. In 2008, the runner-up from 2000 won in his second try.

Obviously, Hunstman hasn't been on the George W. Bush path. Could running put him on the path that took John McCain to the nomination? Well, it would first of all require him to actually do well in 2012; if not finishing second, at least surviving, say, through New Hampshire. Is that likely? Sure doesn't look like it to me.

More to the point: OK, John McCain certainly counts as a candidate who became a national figure by running for president, and later won a nomination. That's one. Against that, there's Lamar Alexander, and Liddy Dole, and Pete DuPont, and Howard Baker, and Phil Gramm, and John Connally, and Arlen Specter, and Dick Lugar, and...I won't go on, but it's obviously a long list. Given that run-and-lose has only won one of the two truly open contests, it's hard to see any point to that.

OK, what about that VP nod, though? Two nominees (Dole and Bush) had previously been nominated for the second spot on a ticket. Huntsman would certainly move up for 2016 if he ran on the bottom of the ticket and lost (and would be in even better shape, of course, if he became vice president).

Alas, run-and-lose isn't really a great way to get on the bottom of the ticket, either. The GOP VP candidates in 1968, 1976, 1988, 2000, and 2008 had not run previously; the selections in 1980 and 1996 were former candidates. Of those, only Jack Kemp in 1996 had been a washout presidential candidate, as Huntsman is likely to be if he runs. At any rate, it's hard to see someone who would almost certainly draw a veto from Christian right groups

Of course, the chances of anyone winning a nomination are always long. Jon Huntsman probably wouldn't have been president even if he had stayed put in Utah and had stuck to the party line on every issue, just because the odds are against any particular candidate winning a nomination. It's also pretty clear that George H.W. Bush would almost certainly never have been president had he not embarked on a longshot candidacy in 1980, and John McCain would probably not have been a nominee had he not run in 2000 (could he have been? Sure. Someone had to win in 2008, and it wasn't going to be Rudy Giuliani). After all, as little evidence as there is that running and washing out after Iowa won't get you a future nomination, there's not any evidence that it would hurt, exactly. But it's an awful lot to go through with very little evidence that it would do any good.


  1. >Huntsman would certainly move up for 2016 if he ran on the bottom of the ticket and lost

    Really? That seems even more of a long shot than the other points you raise. In the last forty years, only one failed vp candidate, Dole, went on to later be nominated for president. FDR is the only failed vp candidate in history to later win the presidency. Contrast that with Edwards, Lieberman, Kemp, Ferraro, Shriver.... At best, losing as vp candidate may raise one's profile enough to become a serious candidate later, but it hardly seems to be much of a path to the nomination, much less the presidency.

  2. Well, Muskie became a frontrunner. Shriver ran, but was a washout. Dole you said. No one in 1980...Ferraro never ran. Bentsen was older (there have been times when picking an old VP was the style). Kemp, I don't know why he didn't run in 2000; he would have been, as they say, a contender, right? Don't know if the VP nod would have helped, though. Holy Joe was a washout. Edwards was a serious candidate in '08, but probably would have been anyway after his '04 run. So it helped Dole, Muskie, and maybe Edwards, gave false hope to Shriver and Lieberman, neither helped nor hurt Ferraro or Bentsen, and no idea about Kemp, but it may have hurt him. At least, that would be my quickie take on it.

  3. You're dealing with incredibly limited data here Jonathan, and I don't think you really demonstrate anything in the end, and certainly not your point.

    Is running in 2012 a smart strategy for Huntsman to set up a more viable 2016 run? I don't know, you don't know, none of us know. In a way it's a silly thing to talk about other than to say, "huh, let's see how that goes." You acknowledge that Bush running in 1980 as a long shot eventually brought him to the White House (obviously because he became VP), and the McCain 2000 and then 2008 run is certainly somewhat analogous to what Huntsman would try to do. Yes, it's only "one," but why on earth could not Huntsman be number two? It would be no less strange than a prediction in 2005 that Barack Obama would be elected president in 2008, or another prediction in 2005 that Mike Huckabee would be the second-to-last man standing in the GOP contest. In 1965 the idea of Ronald Reagan as president would have made as much sense as the idea, circa 1990, of Jesse Ventura as governor of a state. What we are talking about with Huntsman is considerably less bizarre than any number of past political careers.

    In addition most of the other failed candidates you mention (Liddy Dole, Alexander, Phil Gramm) simply were not very good candidates, and this was remarked upon at the time. Huntsman has a lot more going for him than Liddy Dole or Gramm, and that absolutely needs to be part of the equation. He is smart, young, attractive, rich, with a good executive record, foreign policy experience, and a reputation for being a moderate. He has an interesting personal story. In short, there is a reason Barack Obama's people were afraid of him and shipped him off to China.

    Do we know Huntsman is playing for 2016? Of course not, he might be delusional and think he can win this time around. But if he were looking to a post-Obama run, the idea would undoubtedly be that the GOP will nominate someone too extreme this time around (which is quite possible), lose badly, and look back in anguish at their choice. If Huntsman set himself up as the anti-extreme candidate more so than anyone else, comes of as smart and likable in the debates (which he probably would), he would gain in stature during Obama's second term.

    What are the odds of this plan succeeding? I don't know, maybe 5% or 10%, to just make up a number. Not great odds, but not bad either when you think how hard it is to become president (you allude to this idea above). If Huntsman is looking to a 2016 run via a 2012 one it definitely is not "nuts," and to my mind none of the fragmentary, semi-random evidence from history you've tossed in really has much bearing on the question. It's a different candidate and a different political climate.

  4. I definitely wouldn't claim to be proving anything, but...

    First, some of the candidates I listed were in some objective way weak, but others look weak more in retrospect, and partially because they washed out. That's a danger for Hunstman if he runs!

    Second, the fact that no one has ever (in modern times) come to national politics with more or less Huntsman's background, washed out by Iowa or New Hampshire, and then come back to win a nomination, really does say to me that it's not exactly a great path to eventually winning. And since it's hard for me to see Huntsman doing better than that in '12, I wouldn't advise him to try it. Better to sit out, write a book or two now, and then spend the full four years running (if Obama is re-elected).

    Basically, I think "getting clobbered in Iowa and quitting" is not apt to gain stature for a pol, even if he or she does do well in the debates.

    OTOH, getting your name floated for a couple of weeks in winter 2011 before knocking down the rumor is an excellent way of gaining stature, so if that's what he's up to, I'd say he's doing quite well at it.

  5. Obviously you could be right, it's the certitude of the initial post that seemed odd to me. But bear in mind there's nothing to say that Huntsman would wash out in Iowa or New Hampshire--that's very much an assumption.

    As in 2008, it seems it will be okay (in terms of perceived viability) for candidates to basically skip certain states (Romney will probably do that in Iowa, if Palin runs she would do so in New Hampshire). Huntsman would probably weakly contest Iowa (at best), and then try to have a better than expected showing in NH (which he could easily do since expectations will be low).

    Depending on scheduling, Nevada might actually matter for the GOP this year. Romney will certainly want it to, as would Huntsman. Previously no one cared about it because it was assumed Romney would win in a landslide, with Huntsman in the race that would seem unlikely. Those two fighting it out there, in a semi-meaningful contest, would make for a great story for extremely obvious reasons. If Huntsman won that contest--as is entirely possible--it could be a game-changer in multiple ways.

    Finally, Huntsman would have essentially unlimited financial resources (not just because his family is rich--he also has deep business ties and an ability to raise lots of money). That could help him to weather early losses and avoid a quick collapse.

  6. Maybe Huntsman has had the same thought that I, and many others I've talked to, have had. The 2012 GOP primary field is remarkably weak. Romney is a dead man walking (individual mandate!). From there, where do you go? Huckabee--the Establishment will never let that happen. Palin? Gingrich? Barbour? Thune?!?

    If ever there was a time for a well-funded long shot, this is the time.

  7. I agree with anonymous 8pm.

    Huntsman could just be running for '12. If the economy double-dips, whoever the GOP nominates will win. (If it has months like the last one, then it won't matter who they nominate) And look at the field. As I believe your brother has noted, every candidate has a potentially fatal flaw. And the big dog in the room, the Sage of Wasilla, is the most flawed of all, yet is also running way up there. If we look at intrade, she's a solid third...but she also has 5 times as many shares traded as the others. We all know that she will suck the media oxygen out of the room. In such an environment, Palin v. Romney could emerge as the theme, but so could Palin v everybody. If we think as little of Palin as we do, a reasonable expectation is that the entire field blows up when she pulls out in November after saying something that is enough to demonstrate her stupidity even to her fans, and Huntsman could pick up those pieces as well as any of the others.

  8. does anyone else ever look at theweek.com? I don't read it for insight into the issues (that's why I come here!), but I think it gives one an idea of what the "narrative" of a particular story is.

    I bring it up because today they had a post that asked something like "Is Huntsman the one who can beat Obama?" The writers quoted in the piece declare that maybe he could, but he can't win the nomination.

    What if Huntsman pushes that narrative as hard as he can for the next year? He doesn't pander to the far-right and make himself look pathetic and two-faced (Romney), but hammers the message that a far-right candidate can't win. Maybe he can even get a poll or two to back up his supposed strength against Obama.

    Then Obama crushes Huckabee and the far-right, and the pundits and the GOP insiders and the GOP fundraisers all sit around bemoaning their failure to get behind the great and powerful Huntsman.

  9. >Then Obama crushes Huckabee and the far-right

    Huck is not generally viewed by conservatives as the "far right." Most of the talk-radio world considers him an economic liberal. If Obama crushes him in the general election, they'll draw exactly the same lesson they drew from '08 with McCain.


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