Advancing a Free Society

Will Huntsman Ever Become the Hunted?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

To understand the frustration Jon Huntsman must feel these days (he’s but a speck in most national polls and, despite moving his national campaign headquarters to the Granite State, where he’s done over 100 events, only a fifth-place candidate in the latest New Hampshire numbers), harken back to your childhood – when it was time to choose sides for fun and games.

Maybe you had the misfortune of being the last kid picked for your team. You remember what it was like to stand by while others who weren’t as talented as you (in your opinion, not the ones choosing), went earlier in the selection process.

And you wondered: “when’s someone going to pick me?”

Such is Huntsman’s fate at this point in the lead-up to next year’s primaries and caucuses. Of the eight GOP hopefuls who regularly take to the debate stage, only Huntsman, a former Utah governor, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have yet to have their star-turns – and with it, a rise in the national polls and media certification as the latest Republican “it” candidate.

It’s not that Huntsman isn’t qualified to replace Barack Obama. In addition to his time as Utah’s chief executive, he’s also a former ambassador to China. That gives him both domestic and foreign policy chops.

Huntsman isn’t exactly living in New Hampshire on a shoe-string budget (the candidate’s wealth has been listed between $15 million and $66 million in personal assets; his father’s wealth comes, in part, from designing the Styrofoam clamshell that houses Big Macs and other McDonald’s sandwiches).

Nor is Huntsman an empty suit lacking for ideas.

Just take a look at his “American jobs plan”, as well as thought-out approaches to energy security andworld leadership. There’s meat on the bones.

So why is it that Huntsman hasn’t had his 15 minutes of fame (in this field, that translates to about two weeks of frontrunner status)?

Allow me to offer three possible answers:

  1. The Wrong Constituency. What was the driving force behind the Huntsman presidential launch? The Tea Party? Anti-tax crusaders? A groundswell of activists in New Hampshire or Iowa? Party insiders and moneyed donors? No. Try: the media. A Gallup poll released prior to Labor Day had Huntsman dead last among Republicans in name recognition. Still, that didn’t stop an Annie Leibovitz photo spread in Vogue, plus adoring interviews from the likes of PBS and CNN’s Piers Morgan and scads of articles written – not coincidentally – by left-of-center journalists who’ve never voted for a Republican in their lives. The result: an imbalance between the media’s fondnessfor the candidate and the candidate’s impact with Republican voters. But why the media’s pimping for Huntsman? That leads up to the second problem his candidacy . . .
  2. Nobody Likes a Noodge. At the heart of the Huntsman candidacy is the idea that Republicans are too far to the right, and therefore too out of touch with 21st Century America. Take, for example, his dust-up with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over evolution and global warming. Huntsman began the race as a “civil conservative”. However, that’s civility didn’t last too long. Instead, he chose to tilt at conservative windmills – as did John McCain in 2000, when he deviated from his “maverick” persona to lash out against the Christian right’s influence on the GOP nominating process. The problem with this: while the media love the thought of Republicans forming circular firing squads, conservative voters – the ones doing the choosing – don’t cotton to suggestions that they’re out of the mainstream, if not just plain out to lunch.
  3. He’s Trying Too Hard. In 2008, Mick Huckabee played a bass guitar. It worked for him. In 2012, Herman Cain broke out in song. Audiences loved it. Huntsman’s approach: dazzle with pop culture – cultural references not familiar to many a Republican primary voter. In delivering a spring commencement address at the University of South Carolina, Huntsman read lyrics from alternative rockers Ben Folds Five. He’s trotted out lines (“we’re not worthy”) from Wayne’s World. At a Republican presidential debate, Huntsman even tried a play on words involving Mitt Romney and the late Kurt Cobain (Romney wrote No Apology, Cobain sang All Apologies). And, of course, there are the candidate’s self-references to his fluency in Mandarin (just how fluent is debatable). Collectively, it’s the impression of a candidate trying a little too hard to be hip – running to be the coolest dad, not the most compelling candidate, in the field.

All of this said, there is historical precedent to back up what Huntsman is attempting. Bill Clinton ran for president as a “different kind of Democrat”. However, the Bill Clinton who lectured Democrats on their losing liberal ways as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, prior to his running in 1992, was not the same Clinton who toned down the tutorial approach once an actual candidate and grubbing for votes in New Hampshire.

And there’s Gary Hart, going from relative anonymity to New Hampshire sensation. In October 1983, a WMUT-TV poll has Walter Mondale leading Hart in New Hampshire in a rout, 44%-6% (this week’s Bloomberg News poll in New Hampshire mirrors 1983 in that it has the race at Romney 40%, Huntsman 7%).

Of course, there’s one big difference: Hart competed in the Iowa caucuses, where he “won” the evening by defying expectations and receiving 17% of the vote (32 points behind Mondale, btw) – momentum that carried over to an upset win in New Hampshire. Huntsman isn’t competing in Iowa; he’ll likely face Romney, Ron Paul and at least one other top-tier Republican challenger in next year’s New Hampshire vote.

Sadly, this may wind up as a missed opportunity: in Huntsman, Republicans had a vehicle for engaging in serious talks about civil unions for same-sex couples (Huntsman is supportive) and greenhouse-gas emissions (Huntsman pushed for cap-and-trade in Utah. But such a discussion requires a slow and deliberate walk-up, not a quick plunge into the deep end of the campaign pool – with the media the ones doing the shoving.

Which may be why Huntsman continues not to be the hunted in this race.