Each Wednesday Right Turn will look at a GOP presidential contender’s (or current non-contender’s) possible path to the nomination. This week we’ll look at Jon Huntsman, who certainly has been seeking out wonkish Beltway conservative pundits to help him make his case.
As a starting point, it’s not unreasonable for Huntsman to start in D.C., as opposed to out in the hinterlands, where Tea Partyers and conservative activists view him, for now, with suspicion.
His first task is to establish that he really is conservative, or conservative enough for the Republican electorate. So we learn that he is opposed to quantitative easing. We also hear he is “strongly pro-life. His growth-oriented economic agenda as governor — a flat tax, a reduction in the sales tax — is a conservative model. And his business background appeals to important Republican constituencies.” He also believes that “lower but more inclusive income tax rates would be good economics — and good civics, reducing the share of households (47 percent in 2009) that pay no income taxes. At first saying Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget ‘is worthy of consideration’ and later endorsing it, he says: ‘If you’re frightened of Ryan’s road map, you have not looked at our accumulating debt.’ ”
None of this is out of kilter with conservative sentiment. And to his credit, in a 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, he came out against the Detroit auto bailout. (“They have to reorganize. They have to look at the assets that they critically need to have to be competitive in today’s marketplace, and to move on. And, at that point, if they need some taxpayer help, let’s have that discussion. But it is foolhardy and I think nonsense to be talking about this before you have really taken a critical look at your company and why it is inefficient today.”
But that is not going to be enough to climb out of low single digits or satisfy the conservative base. For that, I’d suggest he will need to do five things.
First, he’ll have to put some meat on the bones. It won’t be enough, as he did in an interview with Ramesh Ponnuru, to say, “We’re going to have to be willing to look at some pretty dramatic measures including entitlements, including defense.” He can’t simply get away with asserting that “didn’t really have a feel” for how the GOP congressional leadership is doing. In sum, he needs an agenda, preferably a conservative one.
Second, he’s going to have to deal with his most acute liability with fiscal conservatives: his embrace of a state cap-and-trade plan. Every other candidate (including Tim Pawlenty who studied but didn’t implement such a program) is going to run against the growth-stifling regulatory environment. What has he learned about his cap-and-trade plan and why, like Mitt Romney, should conservatives trust him not to repeat a big-government approach if he gets to the White House?
Third, he’ll have to pull off an upset in New Hampshire. After ruling out Iowa, his opening, maybe his only early one, is in the fiscally conservative Granite State, where independents and even Democrats can cross over to vote in the GOP primary. That’s how the more moderate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) toppled Romney in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000. That means mixing it up with activists, cultivating Tea Partyers and spending less time inside the Beltway and more time raising his profile outside of Washington. The dig against his candidacy is that it is a consultant’s creation with little popular support; unless he disproves this in New Hampshire, he’s not going anywhere.
Fourth, he will need to become the not-Romney, pushing aside Tim Pawlenty and hoping that more conservative candidates such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) divide up the vote sufficiently (as McCain was able to do in South Carolina when Romney, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee split up more conservative voters.) That probably means getting aggressive, going after his opponents’ weaknesses and being the most effective aggressor in face-offs with Romney.
And finally, he’d do well to lose the themes of cutting defense, pulling out of Afghanistan and playing down national security. His most serious competition embraces the Reagan foreign policy tradition — strong on defense, solid on human rights and unwavering in taking on America’s enemies. Running to the left of Obama after serving as his ambassador is no way to mollify conservatives.
Huntsman has already caught a few breaks from popular governors bowing out of the race. To move into contention, he’ll need to establish a rationale for his campaign and a profile that is conservative without being inauthentic.Is it an uphill climb? Sure. Impossible? Nope.