What a difference a week makes.
On Sept. 29, Republican uber-centrist Jon Huntsman raised eyebrows by saying he would officially vote for Donald Trump. Eight days later, confronted with Trump’s lewd comments about women in the 2005 videotape, he called for Trump to leave the race.
Talk about bad timing.
To be clear, the former Utah governor hinted he might be willing to support Trump back in February. And in April, he called for the party to rally behind its presumptive nominee. But Huntsman’s decision to explicitly declare for Trump so late in the race came as a surprise, especially within the D.C. foreign policy establishment. Why not play it vague like others in the party?
It all comes down to Huntsman’s plans, which remain opaque even to those in regular contact with him. Since last month, D.C.’s foreign policy community has been parsing the former presidential candidate’s past Trump statements for clues.
For example: earlier this year, Huntsman said he supported Trump because he would be better than Hillary Clinton in reforming the campaign finance system and the tax code. “I’d love to see someone stand up who’s a total outsider,” Huntsman told David Axelrod in February. “I think it would actually be a pretty healthy thing.”
It’s true that campaign finance reform is a central goal for No Labels, the centrist political group Huntsman leads with ex-Sen. Joe Lieberman. But Clinton, too, said she’d pursue reform as one of her first priorities at the White House. Trump has paid the issue cursory attention, at best.
Trump has also not been kind to Huntsman in the past: in 2011, he took repeated, public shots at Huntsman’s Mormon faith.
The theory in foreign policy circles comes down to this: Huntsman wants to be secretary of state badly enough he was willing to risk his credibility on Trump. Clinton could perhaps use him in that role, but others — most notably former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon — are ahead in line. So he made an awkward attempt at positioning himself, one that was likely for naught.
A spokeswoman for the Atlantic Council, which Huntsman chairs, said he was not available to comment.
These are the ironies of Huntsman’s apparent calculus. As President Obama’s former ambassador to China, the governor is said to greatly respect Clinton; the two worked closely together at the State Department. In Utah, where Huntsman is said to be entertaining a 2018 bid for Senate, support for Trump is no guarantee of success with the Republican base. And in D.C., where most respectable foreign policy figures disowned Trump long before last week, Huntsman’s former embrace of the candidate makes him a kind of outsider.
It’s worth noting that even the Salt Lake Tribune — a paper owned by Huntsman’s brother, Paul — condemned Trump and endorsed Clinton.
The way the political winds are blowing right now, Trump won’t even have the luxury of appointing a Cabinet. And unfortunately for Huntsman, Clinton has plenty of candidates for secretary of state who actually supported her campaign.