In the penultimate paragraph of his bracing takedown of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, George Will makes the case for Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s domestic and foreign policies are conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley Jr. once described conservatism as the politics of reality.
On paper, this ought to be Jon Huntsman’s moment. The only way the former Utah governor was going to ever get nominated was if Romney was mortally wounded by a candidate with questionable conservative credentials and even worse general election prospects. That is the scenario that seems to be unfolding before our very eyes. Repubilcans should be ready to give Huntsman a second look.
Yet that is rather unlikely to happen for reasons the old shampoo commercial can provide: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Huntsman was always going to face long odds for having taken an appointment, even if only an ambassadorship, from Barack Obama. Many, and perhaps most, Republican voters believe working for Obama in any capacity disqualifying. Hank Williams Jr. lost his gig on Monday Night Football when he sang their tune on John Boehner golfing with this president. The Obama connection might have been insurmountable in any event; it certainly gave Huntsman no margin for error.
Huntsman bought into the conventional wisdom of a too ideological, too brash, too loud Republican Party that was popular after 2008 and clung to it long after that conventional wisdom became obsolete. Since the Obama-McCain election was lost in the center, it seemed plausible to believe that’s where Republicans must look for their next majority. This view never entertained the likelihood that untrammeled liberal government would move the country, and even more so the GOP, to the right.
Egged on by John Weaver, Huntsman emphasized civility. He gave interviews for fawning profiles in glossy magazines, where liberals could read about how Huntsman was going to save his party from the radical right. He sent out tweets advertising that he wasn’t the kind of Republican who believed nutty stuff about evolution and climate change, in the process insulting the millions of Republican voters who hold such views. Even as he cranked out ambitious conservative policy proposals, he never built a convincing narrative about why he went from working for Obama to running against him.
This drives conservative policy wonks nuts. Here’s a guy who supports the Ryan plan, opposes farm subsidies and corporate welfare, and has perhaps the most conservative tax plan that could realistically pass Congress, and he’s getting blackballed over some snarky tweets? But this ignores the reasons regular people, who are neither wonks nor systematic political thinkers, choose their candidates.
Huntsman is polling respectably in New Hampshire and could get a bump from going one-on-one with Newt, so we’ll see. But for Huntsman, the challenge was always going to be proving he wasn’t Obama’s man in the GOP. His failure to meet that challenge on first look will likely prevent a second.
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