Jonathan Chait

Should We Take Huntsman Seriously?

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Much of the discussion of the Jon Huntsman candidacy revolves around whether the news media should treat him as a top-tier presidential candidate. The divide on this question is a divide between people who have a handle on the state of the Republican Party and those who don't. The reasons why Huntsman can't win are legion -- he's polling within the margin of error of zero; he's taken numerous moderate positions Republicans can't tolerate; he has worked for, praised and been praised by Obama; there's already another mainstream competent Mormon former governor competing for the same limited slice of the primary electorate; and Huntsman's own recognition that he's too moderate for the current GOP.

But the main obstacle is that Huntsman differs with the entire Republican Party on the party's most fundamental strategic question, which is how to respond to Obama. Here's Huntsman early in 2009:

In dozens of interviews over the past few weeks, he has characterized Republicans as "devoid of ideas" and "gasping for air," decrying the GOP's "gratuitous partisanship," comparing it to "a very narrow party of angry people," and describing its strategy as "obstruct and obfuscate … grousing and complaining." When I ask him who he sees as potential leaders for the party, he says with a mischievous grin, "I don't know that we have one."

So you had the Republicans assuming a posture of maximal opposition vis a vis Obama in early 2009. A few murmerings of dissent could be found, mainly among Republicans who subsequently left or were driven out of the party, like Charlie Crist or Arlen Specter. Huntsman was the most forceful dissenter, and he recognized that his dissent put him so far out of step with the party that he shelved his presidential ambitions and accepted an overseas post working for Obama. Since then, there has been absolutely no dissent whatsoever on the question of Obama. No Republicans is saying they should have cut a deal on stimulus, or health care, or anything. The posture of maximal opposition to Obama is the one single thing upon which the entire party agrees.

The notion that a dissenter against that consensus might win the presidential nomination is not merely a longshot but totally absurd. Political reporters take Huntsman seriously because, apart from having some impressive governing accomplishments, his ideological deviations place him closer to their own views. But Huntsman is much farther from the party center of gravity than Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, or Ron Paul. Republicans nominating Huntsman would be as if the Democrats in 2000 had nominated someone who had crusaded for the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

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