This is not, in all likelihood, Jon Huntsman’s break-out moment. Even if the former Utah governor manages to exceed expectations — which would amount to coming in second to Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary — his path ahead is unclear. Huntsman has invested months and months of slogging from house party to diner to town hall meeting in this state, but he has little in the way of infrastructure to propel him in South Carolina and beyond.
Still, Huntsman is worth paying attention to for two reasons. First is his newly assertive edginess toward the front-runner. Huntsman and Romney clearly can’t stand each other — and it’s increasingly, deliciously showing.
Romney, departing from his customary approach of standing regally above the fray, couldn’t stop himself from jabbing at Huntsman — needlessly, since Huntsman poses so little threat — at Saturday night’s debate about his defection to the Obama administration as ambassador to China.
Huntsman, at a town meeting here Sunday night, returned serve. “The biggest difference between me and Mitt Romney is I’m somebody who believes in putting my country first. Mitt Romney believes in putting politics first.” Ouch.
On Monday, Huntsman was back at it: “Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs.” Double ouch.
The second reason for paying attention is that Huntsman doesn’t seem inclined to go away; for him, 2012 seems like a trial run for a more credible future campaign. Depending on what happens in November, Huntsman may be more of a factor four years from now than he is today.
This is the point at which folks like me — left-of-center suckers for bipartisanship and reasonableness and capable former governors — are supposed to say nice things about Huntsman. Cue praise for his appeal to patriotism and national unity, his devotion to closing the “trust deficit” between Americans and their leaders.
I’m not ready to go there. Huntsman played a rather clever game with New Hampshire voters. There is a certain aspect of chameleon blending in with the political landscape. You might call it Romney-esque. Or Obama-esque. You can listen to Huntsman and take away what you want to hear.
Item: In New Hampshire, Huntsman says things that make him sound moderate — and therefore appealing to the independents who are permitted to vote in the Republican primary here. Thus he embraces the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan as the “perfect road map for America.”
Except Huntsman doesn’t really mean that. Because Simpson-Bowles envisions raising tax revenue, about $1 trillion worth, and that isn’t Huntsman’s plan. He’d reform the tax code, sure, clearing out the underbrush of deductions and credits and flattening rates. But he wouldn’t raise revenue. When Huntsman unveiled his economic plan last September, the Wall Street Journal termed it “as impressive as any to date in the GOP presidential field.” In other words, not moderate.
Item: In New Hampshire, Huntsman refrains from saying things that wouldn’t make him sound moderate. Thus, when a friendly voter at Sunday’s town hall meeting describes himself as pro-life and invites Huntsman to explain how he would promote the cause as president, Huntsman chooses not to go there.
“Well, there’s a lot that can be done at the state level in terms of education and awareness, which I did as governor,” he says. “I happen to be pro-life. Some disagree with that. This is an emotional issue, and I respect those who disagree with me.” When the questioner presses — What exactly would President Huntsman do, maybe in terms of reforming the welfare system to provide extra help for mothers? — he isn’t interested. “Well, you can look at what I did as governor,” Huntsman says, and moves on.
You are left wondering whether the answer might have sounded a tad different in, say, South Carolina.
Conservative voters listening to Huntsman can seize on his support for the Paul Ryan budget plan; his opposition to “Obamacare” and the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation; his denunciation of bailouts; his demand for congressional term limits.
Moderates or independents can glom onto his demand for withdrawal from Afghanistan; his insistence on breaking up big banks; his softer-sounding talk on immigration — “You can either put everyone on a bus and send them home . . . or deal with the reality of [them] being here.”
This is the sort of calculated ideological ambiguity that makes me nervous — but also intrigued by the prospect of Huntsman 2016, or beyond.