Jon Huntsman is going nowhere in this presidential race. In the must-win state of New Hampshire, where he has spent virtually all his time, he risks coming in next-to-last, ahead of only the faltering Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
It might have been different, if not for his decision to run as combatively anti-conservative and to throw his lot in with the isolationists.
His key strategist John Weaver, who led the presidential campaign for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) before being dumped in 2007, learned the wrong lesson from McCain. Certainly McCain had been a thorn in the side of conservatives, but when running for president he did his best to convince them of his social conservative bona fides and mend fences. He didn’t stick his finger in their eye and then ask for their vote.
Huntsman, on the other hand, has gratuitously played to the mainstream media and dumped on conservatives. In an ABC interview, he told Jake Tapper:
The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party — the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science — Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.
He sounded similar themes in the campaign, practically daring the conservative voters he was courting to reject him. It was unnecessary and only served to increase the mistrust with which Republican voters viewed President Obama’s ambassador to China.
But his greatest failing was in throwing his lot in with the isolationists. It frankly didn’t even seem sincere. To the contrary, he was generally praised by human rights activists for his conduct as ambassador. He blithely declared the number of troops in Afghanistan should be 10,000. But where was his analysis? He seemed to don the cloak of isolationism in order to woo independent voters.
But Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has a lock on those people. And no one is going to out-do Ron Paul as a Fortress America advocate. His “bring the troops home” mantra was cartoonish, echoing the nation-building-at-home line that seemed more like an Obama speech to MoveOn.org than a Republican seeking to become commander-in-chief.
Moreover, Huntsman turned out to be unfunny, stiff and condescending. In debates, his barbs were often cringe-inducing. And, as Newt Gingrich presently does, he seemed at times more dedicated to attacking Mitt Romney than making headway with voters. He has made Romney, by contrast, seem like a cuddly teddy bear.
Huntsman could have run a different campaign, in essence the sort that Tim Pawlenty tried to mount: internationalist and reform-minded. In the end, would he have done better? It’s hard to say. But the lesson here is a reassuring one: It’s hard to cook up an entirely artificial presidential race, with no grass-roots support, by pandering to the irresponsible streak of isolationism that has at times attracted conservatives. For that, we can thank Huntsman, and then look forward to his swift departure after what will certainly be a miserable showing Tuesday.