On his way out of the presidential race today, Jon Huntsman warned his former GOP rivals against further dividing the country with ugly rhetoric. “Today,” he said in Myrtle Beach, S.C., “I call on each campaign to cease attacking each other and instead talk directly to the American people about how our conservative ideas will create jobs.”
“At its core,” he continued, “the Republican Party is a party of ideas, but the current toxic forum for political discourse does not help our cause, and it’s just one of the many reasons the American people have lost trust in their elected leaders.”
Of course, his former rivals are not about to start listening to him now.
Many commentators have said Huntsman was too much like GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, a perceived moderate, a former governor, a Mormon with a background in business.
But in his cool and calm demeanor, and in his promise to bring Americans together, he is also like the president he served as ambassador to China.
President Obama’s advisers were right to fear that Huntsman would have made a formidable general-election opponent. He would have had both a conservative record that is solid and significant appeal to swing voters because, as he told me, in the first interview he gave after returning from China, he does believe in climate change: “All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer, we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science, so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community.”
In that same interview, conducted in several installments in South Carolina, he promised to stay away from personal attacks if he decided to run for president. When I observed that many candidates say that and mean it yet ultimately don’t stick to it, he answered: “Campaigns are an extension of the candidate and the candidate’s family. People who want to personalize and lead with negatives, I disassociate myself from them. Politics has become a business; these advisers in Washington force candidates into alleyways from which there’s no return. But the American public in today’s world is dramatically in need of serious debate, and I don’t think they feel there’s a lot of bandwidth left for personal attacks.”
Did he follow through? Mostly. Though saying that Romney was making himself “completely unelectable” wasn’t exactly a bouquet, neither did it register on the mean-o-meter when compared with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas calling former House speaker Newt Gingrich a “chickenhawk” or accusing Rick Santorum of being flat-out “corrupt.” Or Santorum accusing Paul and Romney of “outright lying.” Or Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Gingrich accusing Bain Capital under Romney of “looting” companies.
Huntsman’s most negative attack may have been in a humorous video that compared Paul to “your crazy uncle.” He often applied humor instead of blunt force.
Even if he had become his party’s presidential nominee, however, it’s hard to see how the race would have stayed free of attacks on either side, given the unlimited third-party bludgeoning made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
That decision was widely supported by Huntsman’s fellow Republicans.
And sorry as I am to see Huntsman go, I’m sorrier yet that it wouldn’t have mattered had he stayed.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and the anchor of She the People, a forum for women writing on politics and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.