Daniel Larison doesn’t see much that was nuanced, to use my term, about Jon Huntsman’s critique of Republican foreign policy. But last night’s debate illustrated the room for such a candidate. Most Americans, myself included, want a government that will use a reasonable amount of force to protect the country from terrorism and other threats without resorting to open-ended foreign wars almost as the policy of first resort. On the stage in South Carolina, we had Ron Paul struggling to explain whether he would have killed Osama bin Laden while the other candidates engaged in a contest to see who would do the most bombing.
Let us grant that Paul’s concerns about unauthorized incursions into nuclear-armed Pakistan to take out high-value terrorist targets didn’t seem so self-evidently absurd to many mainstream conservatives when Barack Obama first floated the idea in his campaign over four years ago. But Hunstman did introduce the idea of limits to what military force can achieve, talked about troops returning home so Washington could focus on our “core,” without going as far in the opposite direction as Paul. I agree that Huntsman’s baby steps away from a Bush-McCain-Clinton-Kerry foreign policy wasn’t good enough and that Paul has contributed more to the Republican debate on these issues. But it was enough that supporters of that foreign policy status quo recognized Huntsman as a dissenter.
That brings me to Conor Friedersdorf’s argument that the conservative press is to blame for Huntsman’s failures. Indeed, more attention should have been paid to Huntsman’s pro-life record and his support for the Ryan plan than his tweets or his daughters. But a candidate is ultimately responsible for how he chooses to market himself. There’s a lot of ground between running as John Anderson and Michele Bachmann. Huntsman’s ambassadorship to China simply wasn’t as compelling a personal story as John McCain’s POW status during Vietnam. And Hunstman didn’t have decades as a familiar figure to conservatives (remember that just four years before his “maverick” 2000 campaign where he ran to the left of George W. Bush, McCain endorsed Phil Gramm for president).
If conservatives are skeptical of Mitt Romney, who has done everything humanly possible to market himself as a conservative for the past six years, they are going to be skeptical of someone who — by accident or design — makes an initial impression as something other than a conservative. And if Huntsman concluded he couldn’t win the talk radio primary, it’s hard to blame the conservative press if he then decided to win voters who don’t exist in large enough numbers to secure a Republican nomination. Finally, there was no shortage of conservative love for Tim Pawlenty, yet it wasn’t enough to overcome the defects in his campaign.
UPDATE: Consider this bit from Andrew Sullivan making a point similar to Conor Friedersdorf’s. “What you see in the rejection of Huntsman is the Republican body rejecting a sanity transplant,” Sullivan writes. “Based on unreason and hatred of the other half of America. It’s irrational and degenerate.” Leave aside for a moment the “hatred of the other half of America” that drips from these words. What kind of voter, liberal, conservative or Martian, would not find such condescension off-putting? These are Sullivan’s words rather than Huntsman’s, but people don’t appreciate being told to vote for a candidate as a “sanity injection.”