Huntsman has none of Romney’s health care baggage, and unlike the former Massachusetts governor, he didn’t spend the last decade flip-flopping on gun rights, immigration and abortion. Meanwhile, on many of the highest-profile issues of the primary season (the individual mandate, Paul Ryan’s House budget, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), he has arguably been more consistently conservative than Gingrich.
At the same time, because Huntsman is perceived as less partisan than his rivals, he has better general election prospects. The gears and tumblers of my colleague Nate Silver’s predictive models give Huntsman a 55 percent chance of knocking off the incumbent even if the economy grows at a robust 4 percent, compared to Romney’s 40 percent.
In theory, then, Huntsman seems like he could occupy the sweet spot that Gingrich claims to have all to himself. In practice, though, his campaign to date has been an unmitigated disaster.
This isn’t for want of substance. On issues ranging from foreign affairs to financial reform, Huntsman’s proposals have been an honorable exception to the pattern of gimmickry and timidity that has characterized the Republican field’s policy forays.
But his salesmanship has been staggeringly inept. Huntsman’s campaign was always destined to be hobbled by the two years he spent as President Obama’s ambassador to China. But he compounded the handicap by introducing himself to the Republican electorate with a series of symbolic jabs at the party’s base.
He picked high-profile fights on two hot-button issues — evolution and global warming — that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale. He let his campaign manager define his candidacy as a fight to save the Republican Party from a “bunch of cranks.” And he embraced his identity as the media’s favorite Republican by letting the liberal journalist Jacob Weisberg write a fawning profile for Vogue.
This was political malpractice at its worst. Voters don’t necessarily need to like a candidate to vote for him, but they need to think that he likes them. Imagine a contender for the Democratic nomination introducing himself to liberal voters by attacking Planned Parenthood, distancing himself from “left-wing nutjobs” and giving a series of interviews on Fox News, and you have the flavor of how Huntsman’s opening act was perceived on the right. The substance mattered less than the symbolism, which screamed: I want your vote, but I don’t particularly care to be associated with your stupidities.
There was a time in my life I would have been upset at such a statement. I would have totally disagreed with the analysis. Now? Not so much. The thing is, if you're going to run as a Republican, you have to respect the base of the party. No one should expect to get very far in the GOP selection process if you call those who you're going to vote for cranks. Douthat is correct that people don't need to like a candidate, but they need to know that the candidate likes them. While people on either side of Mitt Romney see him as a flip-flopper who tries to please the base, the fact of the matter is if he wanted to be considered a candidate he was going to have to tailor his views to the GOP electorate.
Of course, if moderates were more involved on the party level, then candidates like Romney wouldn't have to give up their views on gay rights and abortion in order to be considered in the GOP.
But I think this all goes back to how the base is treated. I don't think one has to give their more moderate social views to be considered for President, but you need to bring the focus on issues like jobs and not give Christmas presents to pundits by calling folks who might vote for you crazy. It's crazy to think you can do that and get votes in the current primary system.