Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. left the door wide open to another presidential bid in 2016 in an interview with Larry King on "Russia Today" earlier this week.
"I'm open, but here's the deal. You have to be able to create a pathway from Point A to Point B," Huntsman (R) told the longtime CNN talk show host. "I can tell you how I'd get to the finish line from Super Tuesday, but I can't tell you how I get through those early primary states, having been there and done that once before."
Here's some straight talk (with apologies to John McCain): Huntsman has as much chance as I do of being elected president in 2016. Part of that is due to who he is and part of that is because of what the current incarnation of the Republican Party looks like.
Let's start with Huntsman the candidate first. Huntsman was a late entry into the 2012 field, having spent the better part of the first Obama term serving as the U.S. Ambassador to China. Despite carrying that seeming scarlet letter on his résumé, Huntsman jumped into the race promising a new kind of politics. (Who could forget the guy-riding-motorbike-through-desert video aimed at building interest in his candidacy?)
But, as a candidate, Huntsman was less than advertised. Not only was Huntsman trying to occupy an ideological center space that had ceased to exist in the GOP (more on that below), he simply didn't thrive as a national candidate. Huntsman was remarkably risk-averse for a candidate who needed a major shake-up in the field to have any real chance. In debates — and there were lots of them — he was guarded and at times non-existent. (His most memorable debate moment may well have been his decidedly strange Nirvana reference.) He simply did not catch fire — with the slight exception of the last few days prior to the New Hampshire primary. To put it in marketing terms: The dog didn't like the dog food.
It's hard to see how that first impression would change in any positive way for Huntsman if he ran again. Huntsman has positioned himself as the modern-day version of a Rockefeller Republican: A center-ish GOPer willing to break with party orthodoxy on gay marriage and climate change, not to mention speak kindly of the leading 2016 Democratic candidate. "At the risk of totally destroying my future in politics, I have to say she is a very impressive public servant," Huntsman told King of Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I have to say I haven’t been around too many people as professional, as well briefed, as good with people at all levels of life, whether a head of state or the person holding open the door. I think that’s the measure of a leader."
Huntsman may see himself in the mold of Rockefeller or even a Rudy Giuliani, but in so doing he misunderstands how Barack Obama's presidency has changed the Republican Party. While there once was space in a Republican presidential primary field for a center/center-left candidate, ala Giuliani in 2008 or Arlen Specter in 1996, that space is now gone.
Obama's presidency has moved Republicans far further to the ideological right, making people like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, who were once thought of as conservatives, now seen more as "establishment" types. The right is now occupied by true tea partiers like Ted Cruz or more libertarian-tinged GOPers like Rand Paul. There is no market in presidential politics — this is also true of Democrats though more obvious of late among Republicans — for a sensible centrist.
Does that mean Huntsman could never be a viable Republican candidate for president? No. He is young enough (54) that he could wait eight years and still be in the prime of his political life, having learned the right lessons from his first unsuccessful presidential bid. And who knows what the post-Obama GOP might look like?
But, right now — and this hold true at least through 2016 — there is absolutely no logic that would explain a Huntsman candidacy. None.