Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Has Huntsman Stalled?

Solomon Kleinsmith wants to know why GOP Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman isn't going anywhere. The National Journal's John Kraushaar makes a good guess:
The biggest problem with Huntsman’s campaign isn’t his centrist ideology; it’s his campaign’s tactics. Huntsman has decided to ignore the fundamental rule of politics—a campaign is about contrasting your record against those of your opponents. Instead of taking on President Obama, he’s praised Obama’s good intentions and avoided outlining many areas of disagreement. He’s run to the left of the president on Afghanistan, calling for faster and deeper troop withdrawals. And at a time when voters are hungry for solutions, he offered a platitude-filled kickoff speech that barely touched on the economic problems that Americans want solved.

This is a Republican Party that wants head-on confrontation with Obama, but Huntsman is selling d├ętente and civility. It’s an electorate that wants a candidate who identifies with the struggles that Americans are dealing with. Instead, his introductory campaign video focused on his love of motocross—an image of recreation at a time when the country is facing major economic pain. Huntsman is also courting independents in the New Hampshire primary, whom he assumes are in the mold of Michael Bloomberg but are as disaffected as any group out there. (In the latest July Granite State poll, 61 percent of independents said the nation was headed in the wrong direction, with a 47 percent plurality disapproving of Obama.)

Huntsman has a good story to tell. He governed Utah at a time of economic prosperity, lowered taxes, and opposed abortion rights. He was one of the first presidential candidates to come out squarely for Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms—which have become close to conservative orthodoxy these days. His apostasy is hardly more egregious than that of George W. Bush, who championed comprehensive immigration reform, downplayed social issues, and acknowledged climate change. Like Huntsman, Bush even expressed his distaste for “nation building” in the 2000 presidential race, though he clearly shifted his views after the 9/11 attacks.

But unlike Bush, Huntsman is making little attempt to sell his conservative views to voters. Instead, he’s offering a milquetoast message, believing that Republican voters prefer conciliation over confrontation. Bush ran his 2000 campaign on the theme of “compassionate conservatism;” there’s no sign Huntsman is campaigning on anything conservative.
Kraushaar makes some good guesses and I think there is some truth to all of this. But instead of merely talking about the article, I want to answer Solomon's question. So here are a few reasons why Huntsman isn't going anywhere right now.

  1. It isn't 2009 anymore. I do think Kraushaar is right here. After the 2008 election, there were a lot of folks, myself included, that said it was time for the GOP to moderate, to be more open to centrists and independents. By 2010, the GOP had scored several victories to be within striking distance of taking the Senate, and took back the House from the Dems. All the talk of being more moderate ended. I like Huntsman and I still think the GOP needs to moderate. But it's not 2009 anymore. What is selling is trying to be conservative. He has to find a way to remain open to moderates and also speak to conservatives who want to talk about cutting spending and taxes. It's a delicate balance, but he has to do that in the changed climate.
  2. Michelle Bachmann. The congresswoman from my current home state of Minnesota has basically sucked the air out of the room. The media is focusing on her and she is leading in Iowa polls. Get a conservative firebrand and everyone pays attention. Huntsman's more modest campaign can't really compete with Bachmann's presence, at least at this moment.
  3. Debt talks. Most of the media is focused on the debt ceiling talks and that has pushed the GOP presidential race to a distant second.
  4. The Vision thing. I don't like Michelle Bachmann and I think she is plumb loco, but you at least know where she stands. As Krushnaar notes, Huntman is selling a more genteel Republicanism that prefers "concilation over confrontation". In many ways, I resemble that description. But I think Huntman and indeed, most of moderate-centrist pols and movements fail because they lack a fire in the belly. Compromise is a good thing, but I tend to think that a problem with folks like myself and Huntsman is that compromise becomes an end in and of itself. I think people want folks to compromise, but they also want the folks to stand for something. Huntsman's record does indicate a good governing conservative, but he hasn't really communicated that and he hasn't done it with a sense of passion. He used the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty to announce his campaign, evoking Ronald Reagan. Nice, but he also needs to evoke some of Reagan's passion as well.
  5. It's only July of 2011 for Pete's sake! We seem to forget that New Hampshire and Iowa are still months away and anything can change. Remember how McCain's campaign was imploding in the summer of 2007? And yet, somehow he ended up the Republican nominee. Bachmann, might be the bees knees now, but will she be come January of 2012? Huntsman still has time to get his message out there.

So, that's my take on Huntsman. What's yours?

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