Jon Huntsman's Long Game

by Jonathan Chait | May 20, 2011

When Zvika Kreiger profiled Jon Huntsman two years ago, it not only assumed that Huntsman would not run for president in 2012, it built the case in compelling detail why he could not possibly win the nomination. You should read the entire compelling profile if you're interested at all in Huntsman, but here's the nub of it:

Huntsman, who was elected in 2004 as a fairly conventional Republican campaigning on a platform of economic development, first began breaking with his party over environmental issues--for instance, signing the bold Western Regional Climate Action Initiative. He then started taking relatively progressive stands on immigration, unions, and education. As opposed to some of the more conservative Republican governors, Huntsman accepted all the money from Obama's stimulus package offered to the state. "Limited government is important," Huntsman explains, "but I need to make sure that we have a government that actually delivers on issues that people expect us to manage competently and well."
By far his most explosive position has been his support for civil unions this year, a clear shift from his support during his 2004 campaign for Utah's constitutional gay marriage and civil union ban--which his spokeswoman says he now favors repealing. The position is particularly surprising in a state where, according to recent polls, 70 percent of people oppose civil unions. "I've always been in favor of equal rights," he says in explaining his stance. "What would Abraham Lincoln be doing if he were around today?" Huntsman says that he has little patience for the traditional "culture war" issues. "I'm not good at playing those games," he tells me. Huntsman was the only 2012 front-runner not to show at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.
But defying all expectations, his popularity barely took a hit, sinking only from 90 to 84 percent. Emboldened, he started taking on the national party, excoriating GOP leaders for their knee-jerk obstructionism and narrow social conservatism. "I don't even know the [Republican] congressional leadership--I have not met them, I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential, completely," he told The Washington Times in a scathing February interview. "Our moral soapbox was completely taken away from us because of our behavior in the last few years."
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."

You can't win the party nomination like that. Joe Lieberman suffered an ignominious defeat during his 2004 presidential campaign in large part because he failed to express the party base's resentment of George W. Bush. The GOP electorate in 2012 is angrier, Huntsman more dismissive of his own party than Lieberman was, and he starts from a position of obscurity rather than, like Lieberman, front-runner status. Huntsman won't win.

I don't think he's deluded enough to think he can win the nomination. He all but acknowledged as much to Krieger:

During our conversations last month in Utah, Huntsman had already begun to realize that perhaps the Republican Party was not ready for him. "You cannot have a successful party based upon a very narrow band, demographically," he tells me. "You've gotta broaden it to include more young people, more people of color, more people who are urban-dwellers, more who are the intelligentsia in America, many who have jettisoned the party. … And that's ultimately I think how it's going to play out. We're just not there yet." Two years was probably not enough time for the party to change. "He realized he'd just be beating his head against the wall with these guys, which made him open to the phone call [from Obama]," says another source close to Huntsman. "If he thought he had a real chance to be the standard-bearer and savior of the party, obviously he would have said no."

Obviously the party hasn't exactly moved left since he said that in the spring of 2009. It would be strange if Huntsman perceived an opportunity for a candidate like himself to lead an ever more radical, hyper-partisan party. 

I think -- as you may have guessed from my headline -- he's positioning himself for 2016. He accomplishes a couple things here. Huntsman can reposition himself a bit further to the right, to make himself more acceptable to the base. (He's clearly doing that in his ABC News interview today.) If he runs a respectable campaign, Huntsman could build the national credentials and name recognition to run again the next race, a common pattern for Republican nominees. The calculation may be that the party is in a wild-eyed mood right now, but after another Obama win, Republicans may be open to a tactical repositioning. Huntsman, who has already identified the necessary repositioning required to regain a majority, is the sort of candidate who would then be appealing.

A side benefit is that Huntsman could knock Mitt Romney out of the race this time around. If Romney wins the nomination and loses to Obama, Republicans might be loathe to put forward another candidate so similar to Romney's profile. Huntsman's 2012 candidacy further crowds the already-limited Republican market for a technocratic mainstream Mormon nominee.

I'm not saying Huntsman has no intention to win. Politicians frequently overestimate their electoral prospects -- Huntsman probably thinks he has an outside chance. But I'd guess he's taking the first step in a five-year plan to be elected president.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/88780/jon-huntsmans-long-game