From the beginning, I thought Jon Huntsman had a better shot of breaking through than most people believed. Back in June 2011, I wrote a column arguing that in a field that was so predictably conservative, there might be space for a candidate who showed some independence. “So, yes, Huntsman is a long shot,” I wrote then. “But he’s the only Republican waging something other than a standard issue conservative campaign and the only one directing most of his energies toward voters who don’t take their cues from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. This will at least earn him attention. It might even win him some votes.”
Well, attention, yes. Votes, not so much. He did quite well with newspaper endorsements. But his endorsements came mostly from newspapers to which Republican primary voters pay little heed.
My theory all along was based on the idea that in New Hampshire he could pull in a lot of independents. And he did get 22 percent from independents there, more than double his share of actual Republicans. That wasn’t good enough, though, and Mitt Romney and Ron Paul bested him even in this group. It was revealing of Huntsman’s standing as the favorite Republican of most Democrats that his strongest support in New Hampshire came from voters strongly opposed to the Tea Party. There just weren’t that many of them in the GOP primary.
Huntsman’s campaign really only took off on the Sunday before the primary. During the “Meet the Press” debate, he defended his decision to accept appointment from President Obama as ambassador to China, and he told off Romney (whom he endorsed today) for questioning his decision to put “country first” by serving for Obama. “This nation is divided . . . because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said, to applause. That began his surge among independents, and I thought it might just carry him into second place. But it turned out he needed at least a few more days.
Looking back, I think Huntsman’s biggest problem was that he never resolved the contradiction at the heart of his candidacy. He had hoped to win New Hampshire with independents who were moderate in their views and not particularly hostile to Obama. But he also knew that given how conservative the Republican Party is, he had to persuade enough Republicans that he really is a conservative. The truth is that, on economics especially, Huntsman is very conservative. He won plaudits for his economic views from the Wall Street Journal editorial page and was an early backer of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. But he could never square the two strategies and couldn’t figure out which mattered most to him: to be a forward-looking temperamental moderate with conservative views, or to be an outright conservative. As a result, his message was mixed and his appeal was muddled.
My friend and colleague Harold Meyerson and I went to a well-attended Huntsman event in Peterborough, N.H. the night of the Iowa caucuses. Huntsman was good that night, but Harold was struck by two things: First, the crowd cheered the remarks that might be seen as critical of Republicans (for example, of the GOP in Congress) far more than they cheered anti-Obama comments that typically draw loud shots of approval from standard Republican audiences. Second, Harold had the definitive line on Huntsman: “The words are conservative,” he said, “but the music is liberal.” Huntsman seemed happiest talking about his belief in science and his refusal to sign anti-tax or other pledges. Conservatives heard the liberal music. And enough moderates and liberals heard the conservative positions not to rally to him.
I still think there is an audience in some future GOP for the Huntsman mix of positions: conservatism on economics, realism on foreign policy, and an open-minded and modern-sounding moderate conservatism on cultural questions – what my friend Bill Galston has called “tolerant traditionalism.” But this wasn’t the year, and Huntsman wasn’t the guy.