Whither Jon Huntsman?

January 14, 2013

Watch Jon Huntsman over the past 18 months and you are left with a simple question: What is he doing?

With the anti-partisan group "No Labels" hosting its "Meeting to Make America Work!" in New York City today, the former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate is occupying his highest-profile place in the political conversation since the end of his presidential campaign. But "No Labels" is hardly an ideal launching pad for a Republican with designs on winning a GOP primary. Which begs the question: What, exactly, is Huntsman doing?

There are a few possibilities, which are worth exploring in more detail.


(Scott Audette/Reuters)

First, let's look at how Huntsman got to this point. President Obama tapped the former Utah governor to be his ambassador to China in 2009, effectively removing him from the political conversation. Before that, Huntsman, who had been eyeing a White House bid, served as governor of Utah from 2005-2009. He served in George H.W. Bush administration as ambassador to Singapore in the 1990s.

But Huntsman -- somewhat surprisingly -- opted to leave his post in 2011 and run for president. What followed was a campaign that never found a sizable GOP following. Written off as too moderate by conservatives and crowded out by Mitt Romney among centrist Republicans, Huntsman was a man without a political home in the 2012 primary field.

Looking ahead to 2016, he still is, in many respects.

After the primary, Huntsman had some tough talk for his party, lashing the GOP over immigration and even taking on Romney's policies. He's kept up his tough love the past few months, telling the The Ripon Forum last month: "As long as compromise is seen as something akin to treason, it becomes impossible for us to move the policy ball forward."

In the wake of Romney's controversial "47 percent" comment and post-election remark that Obama won by bestowing "gifts" upon certain voters, Huntsman is not the only one in the Republican Party calling for a new message. And given the way the way the public views the GOP these days, few would argue that a makeover isn't in order.

As we've written, there is already a race to be the GOP "rebuilder-in-chief" with an eye toward 2016. So, Huntsman cold be attempting to stake his claim in that competition.

But most the leading voices in that unofficial contest are conservative figures like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Huntsman's not exactly Mr. Popularity on the right, and bringing his message to a group that is working with Democrats won't win him any more favor among the staunch conservatives that play an outsize role in nominating the party’s presidential contender.

Perhaps, then, a future as a post-partisan third-party contender might be what Huntsman is aiming for, especially if voters grow more weary of Washington gridlock and finally get fed up. The issue there is that it remains to be seen whether "No Labels" is the best platform for such an endeavor. Monday's meeting is a kind of reboot meant to inject new life into an organization that was formed by high-profile strategists two years ago, but has yet to become a real force in politics.

Another possibility is a spot in Obama's cabinet. His foreign policy resume might make him an intriguing option somewhere down the line to head the State Department or become U.N. ambassador.

As the cliche goes, hindsight is 20/20. But if Huntsman's ultimate ambition is to become president, it would have arguably been a better decision to remain in his role as ambassador to China for a while longer, and then move toward a White House bid in 2016 or beyond.

As a former governor and ambassador to two different countries, on paper, Huntsman is still a well-qualified presidential prospect. And the possibility of a second bid isn't far from his mind.

"My gut is telling me you’ve got to clear out all the cobwebs in your head before you even think about anything of that kind.  But I will tell you this -- I’m committed to serving my country," he told The Ripon Forum, when asked about 2016.

And he hasn't abandoned the Republican Party, arguing that GOP reform is possible. "I think this country is better served by a strong two-party system," he said on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" Monday afternoon.

It may well be that Huntsman is still trying to figure out where he best fits in as 2016 approaches. The most important political question, though, may not be where he sees himself fitting in, but what niche voters see him occupying. And for now, at least, it's hard to see him as the leading occupant of any particular space.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Sean Sullivan | January 14, 2013