Monday, May 23, 2011

Is Hunstman a Plausible Nominee?

Ezra Klein's weekend question:
In 2008, Republicans nominated a candidate who’d fought the 2003 Bush tax cuts, opposed torture, sponsored the first cap-and-trade bill introduced in the Senate, flirted with joining the Democrats, passed a campaign-finance reform law, led the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and attacked the Christian Right. So why are so many commentators so certain that the heterodoxies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will disqualify them?
Well, I don't want to actually answer his literal question ("why are so many commentators..."), but I've been thinking for a while that I should write again on Huntsman, since I'm definitely one of those who do not believe that Huntsman is a plausible nominee (as regular readers know, I do think that Romney may win).

Why was John McCain a plausible nominee while Huntsman isn't? I'd say there are two major reasons. One is that McCain has advantages that Huntsman doesn't have. He brought to the campaign his war hero image, a long history of national visibility, and the experience of running a presidential campaign. Huntsman has none of that -- on the positive side, he's basically a generic former statewide officeholder, full stop. That's something; it's basically the threshold qualification. But there's no real plus beyond that. Utah is neither a large state nor one that proves him capable of winning swing or Democratic voters. He hasn't been a leader either in his party or of the conservative movement. There's just no plus there. So compared to McCain, he has similar liabilities (heterodox policy views on multiple issues, a squishy record of party loyalty) without any of McCain's advantages.

The second part of it is that John McCain won in part because every GOP candidate in 2008 had severe problems with one or more Republican-aligned group. Mike Huckabee was unacceptable on tax grounds; Mitt Romney had problems with anti-abortion groups; Rudy Giuliani...where to start? I suppose I could add Ron Paul, who national security Republicans couldn't accept. That was exactly why Fred Thompson actually stayed survived for quite some time -- he was the only candidate who would have been acceptable to every group and faction, and probably would have won the nomination if he had shown even a bit of a pulse. The problem for Huntsman this year is that Tim Pawlenty is playing the role of Thompson, and Pawlenty actually wants to be president. (I'd also argue that Romney is probably more acceptable to all factions now, having had four years for his new set of positions to set in; as I've said before, I don't think that health care is the same kind of litmus-test issue).

So, while it's always a good idea to look back at these things from time to time, I just can't see Huntsman as a plausible nominee. I can't figure out who -- in the actual Republican Party, the one that's going to select the nominee -- picks Huntsman over the other entrants. Now, there's always a possibility that something unexpected and unpredictable happens; that's part of politics, too, and, and once can certainly invent a scenario for Huntsman or any of the other implausible nominees. But for now, I don't see any reason to include him on the small list of those Republicans who have a decent shot at being nominated in 2012.


  1. Plus, in 2008, the GOP was the incumbent party. In 2012, they'll be the opposition. And their time in the opposition has been most oppositionist indeed.

    Views that were part of GOP proposals for a decade or two-- like the individual health insurance mandate and cap and trade-- have been rejected by the Party not merely as unwise or poorly designed, but unthinkable tyrannical unconstitutional affronts to Real Americans.

    The GOP rank and file weren't enthused about McCain, but nor were they filled with resentment and rage at his positions. That ain't so today.

    Huntsman, having worked for the Kenyan tribesman socialist Muslim in chief, is unthinkable as the nominee.

    In 2008, Huckabee did probably the best job capturing grass roots enthusiasm, but he couldn't raise any money. Do the big donors still have veto power over the GOP's selection, or does the Tea Party have enough enthusiasm to get small-donor donations to carry a candidate like Bachmann or Palin to the nomination? I doubt it, but it's a question that has to be answered.

  2. Huntsman will probably regret the day he agreed to join the Obama administration for the rest of his life.

    He'd probably be a "plausible" nominee if he publically rejected Obama's offer. It would have earned him cred with the base and he could have done it in a way that appealed to moderates.

    Right now, the moment one of his opponents refers to him an Obama operative will be the day hsi campaign dies in the same way Biden dinged Rudy with his 9/11 quip.

  3. It’s absurd to watch Huntsman enjoy virtual “frontrunner” status while another little-known Republican Governor, Gary Johnson, is ignored almost completely by the press. This is only because Huntsman has former McCain staffers and other insiders shopping around a pre-fab narrative to the media behind the scenes.

    But Jonathan is right, who votes for this guy who wouldn’t otherwise vote for Romney? Of course lightning might strike, you never know. Or maybe he hopes to be in Romney’s position come 2016.

  4. I'll also note that Huntsman's explanation that it was his patriotic duty to join Obama's administration won't cut it with Republicans.

    It's one thing if Obama had offered him a position as Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. I think Republicans would have accepted Huntsman's answer. But Obama offered him a non-partisan position where he wouldn't have much sway over Obama's China position.

    How it appears to most Republicans is that Huntsman willingly let Obama use him as a tool to appear centrist by appointing a Republican by appointing him to a relatively unimportant position. It'll also appear to Republicans that he took the position at the time because he thought Obama would remain incredibly popular but only left when it became clear that Obama could be beaten.

  5. @Anonymous 3:54:
    Why won't it cut it? I mean, Newt had an affair because it was his patriotic duty.......

  6. Couves,

    I suppose, but while Huntsman has issue problems, Johnson is actively opposed to things that make him unacceptable to basically every GOP group except for hardcore libertarians -- and that's a slim, unorganized bit of the party, and one he has to share with Paul. So while I think Huntsman is being taken too seriously, I don't really think Johnson is being taken not seriously enough.

  7. The GOP has never even nominated a Catholic for President. Why do you think their evangelical Protestant Christianist base is going to suddenly find a Mormon acceptable?

  8. Jonathan,

    Johnson is a longshot, but I think you greatly exaggerate the limits of his appeal -- people don’t vote for only candidates who are an exact ideological match to themselves. In any case, I don’t think it’s the media’s job to decide who is or is not an acceptable Republican candidate. There’s nothing wrong with handicapping the race, but the media shouldn’t prejudge the election and starve select candidates of attention.

    As to the libertarians in general, Ron Paul has the most organized grassroots support right now. The other candidates wish they had what Paul does. If Paul really wanted it, he could possibly make a serious run.

  9. I respect your opinion, but... come on — you're saying Jon Huntsman isn't an attractive candidate because he isn't enough like John McCain? Because he's not a war hero? Huntsman may not have any of McCain's advantages (though that's not true, since many saw McCain as a moderate candidate who could scoop up independents—exactly what Huntsman has been described as), but he has plenty of advantages of his own. For one, foreign policy experience, serving as the ambassador to China, the country that threatens to overtake the U.S. as the world's main superpower. Also, what has many Republicans excited about Huntsman is the civility with which he discusses political matters, a refreshing change from what we hear from the rest of the GOP contenders.

    PS — I think it's also worth mentioning that Huntsman has tenfold the charisma and likability McCain possessed in 2008.


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