The Spectacle Blog

Red Meat Huntsman

By on 8.24.11 | 12:08PM

Yesterday I mentioned in passing that Jon Huntsman could have presented himself much differently to Republican primary voters, in a way that would have been more appealing to conservatives. Michael Brendan Dougherty's long Huntsman profile is a powerful illustration of that point: "In Jon Huntsman's America, once a child survives the first trimester, he's well on the way to having a rifle in his small hands and extra money in his pockets. If this qualifies as moderate, why be conservative?"

Indeed, Hunstman has a conservative record on taxes, guns, and life. He supported the Ryan plan when most of the rest of the Republican presidential field ran away from it. Even his implicit criticisms of GOP foreign policy under George W. Bush -- and they are implicit; note he is unwilling to "re-litigate" the Iraq war -- are not made in Ron Paul's sweeping moral terms, and thus have the potential to appeal to a larger number of Republicans.

Yet Hunstman has instead positioned himself as running against the Republican Party. (And make no mistake: his digs at Rick Perry on global warming and evolution will be seen by many Republicans as running against the party.) Some of this has to do with temperament, as Dougherty notes. Some of it has to do with conservatives' reluctance to support anyone who worked for Obama in any capacity. Some of it is due to the issues where he does disagree with most conservatives. A lot of it probably has to do with John Weaver.

But it is pretty clear that Hunstman himself buys into the Frum Forum view of what ails the Republican Party. Whatever can be said of that view, it is not widely shared in the party right now. The alternative that was available to Hunstman is the approach taken by Mitt Romney. Romney aggressively courted conservative leaders and the conservative press, selling his record and downplaying his ideological transgressions.

Favorable treatment from the conservative media isn't everything, but it goes a lot further the fawning mainstream media articles about being a different kind of Republican. It didn't win Romney the nomination in 2008, but it made him more competive than he would have been as a Massachusetts moderate and he is one of the two likeliest GOP nominees right now. Huntsman is as impressive as Romney in small group settings and his record is to Romney's right, so the sales job would have been easier.

Maybe it's to Huntsman's credit that he didn't take that path, preferring to stay true to what he thought would be best for the party in the general election. But the approach he has preferred has made him the longest of long shots to make it to the general.

UPDATE: John Podhoretz sees John Anderson potential in Huntsman.

UPDATE II: Dan McCarthy argues that Huntsman's strategy makes a certain Weaveresque sense. He's certainly right that Huntsman's Tweets make him, like Ron Paul in 2008, a more interesting also-ran than the others, which is more than Tim Pawlenty managed to do running as a conventional conservative. But my impression is that Huntsman originally planned to try to win the nomination. Even if someone seen as unelectable knocks Romney out of the race -- which I've long thought was Huntsman's best shot -- he would need to be minimally acceptable to the base.

In terms of winning the nomination, Huntsman's apparent strategy has never worked. John Anderson under-performed and left the party in 1980. Arlen Specter and Pete Wilson didn't even make it to 1996. John McCain in 2000 was the most successful. But however much goodwill McCain generated among independents, his attacks on the Christian right put a ceiling on his support and helped ensure he would get crushed in closed primary states. McCain ultimately didn't win the nomination until he repudiated his maverick past and made nice with the base -- and even then he needed a divided field to his right through Super Tuesday to reach the finish line. He also had to pick Sarah Palin to motivate conservatives to come vote for him in November.

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