Can Republican Jon M. Huntsman Jr. follow his Democratic ex-boss’s playbook for victory?
In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama launched a presidential run declaring his support for general Democratic Party ideas on most issues, but emphasizing that his approach if president would be something larger, an attempt to bridge the gaps between the parties and reengage the American public with politics.
In the moves leading up to Tuesday’s formal announcement of his candidacy, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) sounds as if he will take a similar approach. He is downplaying more liberal stands he took in late 2008 and early 2009 (such as his support for the stimulus bill) and sounds like many of his fellow Republicans on most issues. For example, he’s calling for reduced federal spending, lower taxes and backing the plan of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to bring down the national deficit.
At the same time, Huntsman and his staff want to cast him, like Obama in 2007 and 2008, as a candidate beyond his policy positions, a man who could unite the country if elected. (A top Huntsman adviser used the term “bigness” to lay out this view in an excellent New York Times Magazine piece published online on Monday.)
“If you approach things with a sense of civility, stick to the issues, show some respect for the process and for the opposition, when you finally get there, I think more people will give you the benefit of the doubt,” Huntsman told Esquire in a recent story.
But to “get there,” Huntsman must win a Republican primary. And taking this kind of “post-partisan”approach could be more difficult for Huntsman than it was for Obama four years ago.
Obama was a hero among Democratic activists by early 2007; Huntsman is virtually unknown in his party. Obama’s liberal bona fides were well-established, from working as a community organizer in Chicago to his 2003 speech opposing the Iraq War; some of Huntsman’s most well-known remarks are from when he took positions to the left of his party.
And it’s not clear Republican voters are really demanding a candidate who is looking to the political middle. Polls show most Democratic voters consider themselves “moderate” instead of “liberal,” but on the GOP side, conservatives outnumber moderates.
Obama had another advantage Huntsman does not: He stood out in a crowded Democratic field for a host of others reasons beyond his post-partisan appeal, including his youth, race and oratorical skills.
But like Obama in 2007, Huntsman has an opening. Back then, Hillary Rodham Clinton was kind of a presumed favorite, but many party activists either didn’t like her or viewed Clinton as unelectable, and were searching for an alternative. Enter Obama.
In the GOP race this year, Romney is playing Clinton's role of early favorite. But his party is eager for another choice.
Obama ran as as fresher alternative to Clinton, a man apart from the partisanship in Washington even as he had largely the same ideas on public policy as the ex-First Lady. For Huntsman, the challenge will be convincing Republicans he is sufficiently conservative, and then establishing himself as the anti-Romney.