KEENE, N.H. -- If Jon Huntsman, Jr. is finally experiencing his surge -- a word that will need to go into rehab for what’s been done to it the past five years, from Iraq and Afghanistan to GOP primary polling -- then it must be the most subtle of currents, detectable only by the finest of technology, perhaps some product of his father’s global chemical conglomerate, a corporation that Huntsman refers to on the stump just often enough to be credited some business acumen for having been employed by it.
I say this because when I saw him hold a town hall meeting at Keene State College on Sunday night (in a part of the state where there are a lot more Democrats and independents than Republicans), it was all too apparent to me why the former Utah governor and ambassador to China has until now languished in the polls even in the state, New Hampshire, where his moderate, business-minded politics seemed like a good fit and where he has staked his entire campaign. Democrats have taken Huntsman’s stall as proof of the Republican Party’s rightward ratchet and have been secretly grateful for it, suspecting that Huntsman would be by far the most formidable opponent for Barack Obama.
But while Huntsman’s moderate deviations (on civil unions, global warming and Afghanistan, among other issues) have undoubtedly played a major role in his failure to launch nationally, I decided tonight that his troubles in New Hampshire come down to a simpler explanation: for a guy who once played in a rock band called Wizard and who rides a Harley, Jon Huntsman is one heck of an un-dynamic dude on the stump. Worse, he has become that sort of underdog candidate who tries desperately to make a virtue of his humble standing, who chalks his failure up to his courage to utter truths that are, in many cases, far less bold than he makes them out to be. It all adds up to his own milder version of what Newt Gingrich correctly identified in Mitt Romney as “pious baloney”: yes, Huntsman has perfected the art of campaign humblebrag.
Here’s Huntsman trying to capitalize on his retort to Romney in Sunday’s debate over his decision to go to China on behalf of the Obama administration: “We learned in one fell swoop the biggest difference between me and Mr. Romney: I’m somebody who believes in putting the country first. Mr. Romney apparently believes in politics first. I say that’s the problem in this country right now. That’s the reason we’re not pulling together as a people, because everything is politics as opposed to remembering that we’re Americans first and foremost.” And I say, people who in “putting the country first” loudly point that they are doing so are thereby partly undermining that claim. Somehow, Huntsman manages to make a valid rebuttal to Romney sound like the warmed-over, self-regarding Beltway centrism being offered up by groups like this. (He’s sure to keep riding this McCain-esque “country first” line, now that Chris Christie has chimed in with an even harsher attack on Romney's behalf, which turns the question of Huntsman's loyalty away from his allegiance to the Republican Party to his loyalty to the man who gave him the job in China -- Christie said at an event in Exeter last night that he “wonder[s] about Jon Huntsman’s integrity” because he was “obviously being disloyal to the president while he was working for him” at same time as he was looking ahead to a campaign against him.)
Here’s Huntsman telling a middle-aged man worried about American jobs in a confiding, let-me-give-it-to-you-straight tone, what he thinks the answer is to competing with lower-wage countries like China: “Here’s what I think we should work on, because I think quality of the workforce begins at the educational level, I really do, and I think we need more in the way of real educational opportunities for our people.” Ya think?
And here’s Huntsman making the controversial promise to make sure that members of the military are able to find employment back home. “I’ll be darned if we’re going to let the men and women from the theaters of combat, the front lines, come back to the unemployment lines. That’s not going to happen. They’re going to come back to dignity and respect and gratitude and you know what else? They’re going to come back to jobs.”
Making the humble-little-me tone of lines like these all the more noticeable is the delivery and body language that accompanies them -- an aw-shucks monotone; the head tucked forward, turtle-like, to suggest modesty; the mouth turned down at the edges and the eyes opened wide and cast low; all of it adding up to a lugubrious expression at dissonance with the pert metrosexual look of the speaker's slim jeans and matching black and silver belt, black and silver watch and black and silver hair combed sharply back. Equally dissonant is the lengthy pitch made by his glamorous wife Mary Kaye, who describes in perplexed tones the time she read in the Economist on an airplane how Americans were looking for an unusual set of attributes in their president, attributes that it occurred to her as she was reading were all possessed by her husband, if only the American people would realize it. “He’s extraordinary, he’s honorable, he’s common-sense, he’s reasonable, he’s sane,” she said. “These are the things that I hear across the country, everywhere we go. We get stopped, especially at the airports. This is just America. We go through an airport and almost always, always we get stopped: ‘You’re the sane guy! You’re the honest guy! You’re the common sense guy!’ Everywhere we go and people just say, ‘I like you.’ He’s just very easy to get along with. He’s a very approachable guy. You’re going to find that he‘s warm and he’s genuine.” Wow, too bad that people in airports don’t vote in the Republican primaries!
Huntsman is doing his best to conjure up a sense of momentum for himself, but he is such a low-energy goober on the stump that it comes off as something less than fully convincing. “I’m out there on the street, I feel this energy about this campaign, I don’t know what it is, I can’t quantify if. Members of the press corps, they say, ‘What do you have to do, do you have to come in second, or third, or fourth?’ I have no idea, I have no idea how we’re going to do. We’re going to do well. All I can tell you is there’s some energy out there, it’s becoming huge! There’s energy on the ground, I can feel it!” Well, if you say so.
After the town hall, which lasted well over an hour, with spirits and people leaking out of the room near the end, I spoke with a big Huntsman admirer who had come all the way from Austin to help out in New Hampshire for the final two weeks of the campaign. Clay Mitchell is a genial 57-year-old who identifies strongly with Huntsman -- he’s a musician who, like Huntsman, grew up in a religious household, has wrestled with that for much of his life, and has been left politically homeless by the rightward drift of the Republican Party. He speculates that Huntsman may still be grappling with his own slice of the culture wars -- he remembers seeing a picture of Huntsman’s band, where he’s got long hair and looks like a dead-serious young rocker, and then another just a few years later where he’s shaking hands with Reagan like a proper young Republican. He wonders if Huntsman would have more appeal if he showed more of the musician in himself and less of the ambassador. “I thought if he stayed in the rock and roll zone, he’d win. His wife told me that in China, as a diplomat he was expected to give 30 minute long answers, and it took a while to get him down to 30 seconds. He’s a diplomat more than a charismatic leader.” Still, Mitchell thought Huntsman has great potential. “He has a great down to earth, Western feel about him,” he said. “I think he’s found his stride. I just hope he’s not peaking too late.”