Political Hay

Jon Huntsman’s Original Sin

A pre-mortem on the candidate who broke the 12th Commandment of politics.

By 1.6.12

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Would conservatives support a presidential bid by David Petraeus?

The Iraq surge architect isn't a candidate. But for years prominent conservatives from Rep. Peter King to Andrew Breitbart have touted the soldier-scholar as a dream conservative candidate to take on Barack Obama.

The question is, if Petraeus had run, would his service in the Obama administration -- first as head of U.S. Central Command, then as Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and now as CIA Director -- have counted against him?

It's safe to say conservatives wouldn't have re-purposed the old "General Betray-Us" moniker for the man who has become one of President Obama's most trusted advisors on national security and intelligence matters. By serving the president, most people understand, Petraeus has been serving the country.

But serving one's country has been seen as a negative factor in former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman's bid for the Republican nomination. Huntsman served as the Obama administration's ambassador to China from August 2009 until May 2011. That service, and the way in which he ended it, is a major reason why his candidacy has floundered.

Though he doesn't always talk like one, Jon Huntsman is a conservative.

He combines many of the best qualities of the other Republican candidates. He has the deep policy knowledge of Newt Gingrich, the business background of Mitt Romney, and the record of conservative governance of Rick Perry. And his pro-life credentials, both personally and professionally, are as impressive as those of Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul.

What's more, Huntsman's foreign policy background is unmatched in the Republican field. He held foreign policy positions in the administrations of the last three Republican presidents.

All this helped to make Huntsman a perfect choice to be America's top diplomat in China. And by all accounts Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin fluently, did an exemplary job in China. He earned high marks from former ambassadors, China experts, human rights activists and business leaders.

Unlike other Obama administration officials, Huntsman wasn't afraid to praise Chinese dissidents or criticize the communist government, especially for its human rights violations.

You might think these things would have endeared Huntsman to conservatives. And they probably would have, except that he did them as a representative of the Obama administration.

If Republican primary voters know anything about Huntsman it's that he worked for Obama -- and for most that's all they need to know. As a commenter on the conservative blog freerepublic.com wrote about Huntsman's acceptability as a GOP candidate, "Nope. He worked for Obama. Nope. Nope. Nope."

Huntsman realizes how his service has been received by Republican voters, telling the Washington Post last month, "I crossed a partisan line when I went to serve this administration, which as an outgrowth of my personal belief that you always put country first. People looked at that and they concluded that I had committed an egregious sin, and they then just sort of glossed right over us and went on to the next candidate."

Huntsman didn't help himself by breaking one of the cardinal rules of modern American politics. Ronald Reagan popularized the 11th Commandment of politics: never speak ill of another Republican.

Huntsman broke what could be called the 12th commandment of modern Republican politics: never speak well of a Democrat. But Huntsman didn't speak well of just any Democrat. He complimented the three Democrats most loathed by Republicans: Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

When he resigned as ambassador to China, Huntsman wrote a short note to Obama, thanking him for the chance to serve. He referred to Obama as "a remarkable leader" and wrote, "it has been a great honor getting to know you." He even underlined the word "remarkable."

In another letter, Huntsman had kind words for President Clinton and Secretary of State Clinton, calling the former's analysis of world events "brilliant."

These private handwritten notes were obtained last April by the Daily Caller, a conservative website. The Daily Caller referred to the notes as Huntsman's "love letters" to Obama. Numerous other news outlets discussed the notes, including the major networks, newspapers, conservative talk radio and Fox News.

When Sean Hannity pressed Huntsman on the letters, and in particular his use of the word "remarkable" to describe Obama's leadership, Huntsman averred that he meant Obama was a remarkable leader for appointing a Republican to such a crucial foreign policy position.

No matter how he meant them, Huntsman's gracious comments stand out at a time when anti-Obama sentiment runs deep.

The Daily Caller says the person who sent the letters did so on the condition that his or her identity not be disclosed. It's likely the Obama reelection campaign wanted the letters to be made public to poison Huntsman's chances of winning the Republican nomination.

This is no surprise given how much Team Obama feared Huntsman's candidacy. Last spring, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told US News & World Report that he considered Huntsman Obama's strongest prospective opponent, and the only one who made the president's team "shake in their boots."

Other Democrats felt similarly. Twenty-five of the 100 Democratic Party insiders and strategists National Journal polled last June believed Huntsman would be the strongest candidate the Republican Party could nominate, ranking him a close second behind Mitt Romney, who received 27 votes.

Since then, liberal politicians and journalists have been, as Time's Melinda Henneberger put it recently, "pelting [Huntsman] with rose petals… that they openly hope will disqualify him in the eyes of Republican Party regulars."

That Huntsman became the media's favorite Republican candidate for president certainly didn't help his cause. But he disqualified himself well before then. By crossing the partisan line, Huntsman doomed his candidacy before it even began.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.