Jon Huntsman before the Newt Gingrich surge was persona non grata on the right. He was largely ignored or ridiculed by debate coverage in the conservative media. However, renewed talk about his candidacy reflects the nervousness by which Gingrich’s potential nomination is greeted among some on the right.
Respected economic writer Jim Pethokoukis of American Enterprise Institute touts Huntsman: “As [Utah] governor, he massively cut income and sales taxes — instituting a 5 percent flat income tax — while expanding the state’s ‘rainy day’ reserve fund. His approach to healthcare reform relied on markets rather than mandates.”
Now before anyone gets carried away we should note that Huntsman is at 2 percent in most polls in Iowa (although he isn’t running there) and still in single digits in the Real Clear Politics average for New Hampshire. Moreover, he has at least three fundamental problems that will flatten any Huntsman wave, let alone a surge.
For starters, he, like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), is outside the mainstream of the GOP and to the left of President Obama on foreign policy. He wants to pull up stakes in Afghanistan. He’s got no problem slashing defense spending. While some pundits point to his “experience” in foreign policy, that experience did not make him a savvy internationalist or teach him much about projecting American power and values. While foreign policy has not been the focus of the campaign, there is a bar that real contenders must clear to assure conservatives that a candidate won’t simply duplicate (or even worsen) Obama’s approach to foreign policy When Huntsman calls for “nation building at home” he plays to the most extreme isolationists in the party. That view has proved to be unacceptable to the broad swath of conservative voters.
Second, there is no worse candidate in the field on cap-and-trade than Huntsman. Gingrich sat on the couch with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but Huntsman actually signed up his state for a cap-and-trade plan. The Hill reportedin the summer:
“As governor, Huntsman signed on in 2007 to a program among Western states and Canadian provinces called the Western Climate Initiative aimed at cutting regional greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2020.
“The initiative’s policies include a regional cap-and-trade system that was supposed to launch in 2012 but has withered, although California is still moving ahead with its emissions-trading plan that’s slated to begin next year.
“But cap-and-trade has become politically toxic in GOP circles. Huntsman acknowledges global warming is under way but argues cap-and-trade isn’t the way to address it.
“We have another reality today and that’s we’ve got to get on our feet economically and nothing can stand in the way of that,” he said Wednesday.
“A group of northeastern states has an ongoing cap-and-trade system for power plants called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) recently announced that he’s pulling his state out of the program.”
Huntsman has since said that that was a mistake, but he’s left open the possibility of adopting a cap-and-trade scheme when the economy recovers.
But it is not his stance on individual issues that makes his nomination inconceivable. (Granted, he’s got some issue problems with the base including civil unions and immigration, on which Huntsman shares Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s views on in-state tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants.) Rather it is that he has styled himself as the candidate in the race most antagonistic toward the conservative base. If Mitt Romney wants to show conservatives they can trust him, Huntsman has gone out of his way to slam them.
He’s called the right anti-science. He’s condemned all of his opponents as “extremists.” The Houston Chronicle reported in September:
“Now Huntsman’s trying to turn it all around — by painting his opponents as extreme.
“He’s the anti-circus, anti-carnival candidate,” John Weaver, Huntsman’s senior strategist, said of the newfound strategy.
“The former Utah governor, whose support of civil unions for gay couples makes him a moderate among those running, recently suggested that others in the field are on the ‘extreme end’ of the party and could be ‘unelectable’ in a general election against President Barack Obama.
“Democrats immediately pounced on Huntsman’s comments and used them to assail others in the GOP field.”
He’s gone out of his way to court the liberal media, providing fodder for the contempt-a-thon they convene to attack social conservatives. And the liberal media and blogosphere have, in return, fawned over him.
The Republican base will certainly have to accept an imperfect conservative as its nominee. But what they won’t accept is a candidate who has attempted to advance his career in a Democratic administration and by slamming his own side. He’s got a much better shot at an MSNBC talk show than a GOP nomination.
The most noteworthy aspect to the Huntsman talk is the frequency with which conservative pundits are now arguing that he is “more conservative than Romney and Gingrich.” That suggests some of the bloom is coming off Gingrich and tells us more about the pundits’ frustration with finding a consistent conservative than it does about Huntsman’s chances of winning the nomination.