Jon Huntsman’s immoderation
Kevin Drum is right: Policy isn’t the only thing that matters. Part of Jon Huntsman Jr.’s reputation for moderation is the tone in which he campaigns, and his willingness to buck the base on climate change and evolution.
But is he really so willing to buck the base? Example A for Huntsman’s independence is a tweet he wrote early in the campaign, where he said, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” But how much does that tell us, really? Huntsman opposes efforts to do anything about global warming. So which is more moderate? Michele Bachmann’s position, which is that global warming isn’t real and thus we don’t need to do anything about it, or Huntsman’s, which is that global warming is real but we don’t need to do anything about it? I’d take Bachmann’s position, actually.
There’s a larger point here: One reason it’s useful to watch a candidate’s policy is that it’s a way of testing the sincerity of their persona. Huntsman sure seemed moderate when he tweeted his support for global warming, but his opposition to policies that would actually do anything about global warming should’ve aroused suspicion. And sure, enough, when Huntsman’s strategy of challenging the GOP base proved ineffective, he began to backtrack a bit. He told a group of conservative bloggers that scientists “owe us more in terms of a better description or explanation” on the climate change, and that “there’s not information right now to formulate policies in terms of addressing it over all, primarily because it’s a global issue.”
He later reiterated his baseline belief in climate change, but these seem like the wiggles of a candidate regretting a messaging decision that didn’t pan out and can no longer be reversed, not the actions of an independent politician who is sincerely concerned by climate change. Which goes, again, to the virtues of keeping an eye on policy: Candidates routinely change their political personas. They tend to keep their substantive campaign promises.
I do want to give Huntsman some credit here. He’s held to an independent and, in the GOP primary, unpopular position on Afghanistan. He’s smacked down some of the sillier talk about starting a trade war with China. He’s made some moves toward developing an interesting position on financial reform, though he hasn’t gotten all the way there. There’s a lot about his candidacy, his personality, and his record to find appealing.
But Huntsman’s overall policies simply aren’t different enough from his competitors to justify the wholly separate coverage the media has given him. Looking at his campaign as a whole, it seems more like Huntsman took a gamble on a political strategy that didn’t work out than that he disagrees in truly fundamental ways with his party. Pointing this out, as I did this morning, isn’t an attack on Huntsman. In fact, it’s an argument his campaign has often tried to make! Huntsman would arguably be performing better if the primary if Republican voters realized that his moderation was more show than substance.