Jon Huntsman’s campaign was never going to work. The former Utah governor has finally realized that as well: Tomorrow, he is expected to drop out and endorse Mitt Romney, for whom he exhibited no small amount of animosity during the debates. In New Hampshire, he preposterously told supporters that a weak third place finish, in a state in which he had campaigned almost exclusively, was his “ticket to ride” to South Carolina, but his campaign wasn’t based on any natural constituency or rationale.
The campaign was, of course, a scheme cooked up by political consultant John Weaver, who managed to flatter Huntsman into running and to siphon off millions from Huntsman’s father to underwrite the effort. But Andy Ferguson had Hunstman pegged in a piece in the Weekly Standard when he described his kick-off event as more akin to a parody than a real campaign announcement. (“The event had the feel of an unsubtle satire dreamed up by some snotty 1970s aging-hippie movie director—Robert Altman, say—to prove that political candidates are just pretty-boy airheads engaged in a show-biz sham.”)
The most amusing thing about the campaign — and there wasn’t much to amuse — was the foolish attention it extracted from the mainstream media. Sometimes the coverage was laughably fawning. His spread in Vogue magazine induced cackles on the right. (“His left eyebrow is pitched slightly lower than the other, and the eye below it has a slight squint. This gives him a perpetual expression of thoughtful engagement, the look of someone listening intently to what others are saying.”) As Ferguson put it:
He’s a throwback to a golden era—that moment when the world was young, in late 2008 and early 2009. Obama had been elected and the Republican party had been repudiated. The consensus among the press was that the debacle of 2008 would require a great rethinking on the part of Republicans, and many Republicans agreed. So dire was the party’s condition that many Republican chin-pullers resorted to hyphens, calling themselves “progressive-conservatives” or “reform-minded Republicans,” anything but plain conservative Republican. Having just been reelected in Utah with a 58-point margin of victory even as other Republicans fell all around him, Huntsman was squarely with the rethinkers. It was back to the old drawing board, Huntsman said at the time. He called for “a broad discussion about the future of the party.” Huntsman is the rethinking man’s candidate.
“It’s like the world began in November,” he said in early 2009. “The old ethos world view—all that’s been decimated.”
But it turned out Republicans liked being Republicans after all. While serving as President Obama’s ambassador to China, Huntsman missed the entire Tea Party movement, not to mention the 2010 election. If it was the GOP presidential nomination he sought, it was of a GOP in some parallel universe created by the press in which the darn Tea Party never arose, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was still speaker of the House and Republicans yearned for an isolationist foreign policy even to the left of President Obama’s.
It’s hard to imagine what gave his team the idea that they could win by insulting Republicans as know-nothings and trolling for Ron Paul voters. It’s safe to assume, I think, that for political hacks like John Weaver, this is simply what he does — getting vain men to give him millions for a fruitless campaign. Huntsman, as is the case with many powerful and rich men, is easily convinced others will find him attractive.
Actually, the Huntsman campaign was useful in a few ways, or rather its total failure was useful. It demonstrated once again how perfectly unsuited is most of the liberal punditocracy to analyzing the Republican Party. They loved Huntsman and couldn’t understand why Republicans didn’t. They imagine a Republican electorate that matches New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s politics — liberal. But that’s their party. Go back to see which pundits thought he’d be in the top tier and you’ll know whose scribblings you can comfortably ignore without missing any astute analysis.
Huntsman’s candidacy also reminds us that after the 2008 election the Republican Party could have gone isolationist. It could have rejected social conservatives in favor of a hipper, younger party. It didn’t and instead went back to its roots as a party of limited government, robust internationalism and traditional values. It made the wise choice from an electoral point of view, and the alternative would have proved just as much a failure as was Huntsman’s campaign.
Huntsman’s expected endorsement of Romney doesn’t mean much. Romney has already captured the moderate and somewhat conservative voters in the party (and is locking up the rest), but Huntman’s departure at least does get one more opponent off the debate stage. Interestingly, had Huntsman been a better candidate and a less obnoxious personality he might have drained critical votes from Romney, leaving his conservative opponents in better shape. But it was never going to be.