A few weeks ago, I pondered the political future of Sarah Palin. Now it’s time for John Huntsman, who finished third in yesterday’s New Hampshire primary despite devoting all of his resources to the state. It’s safe to say that amongst registered Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents, there isn’t much overlap between fans of the two.
Huntsman’s strategy was predicated on the idea that Mitt Romney’s campaign would collapse at some point, forcing the establishment to find someone else to back against the social conservative leading in the polls. Due to the lackluster challengers, that didn’t happen and Romney’s essentially the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
I like Huntsman and I wouldn’t mind voting for him for President in either the primary or the General Election. He did just well enough in New Hampshire to justify staying in the race. The best scenario I can realistically hope for is that he keeps doing well enough in later primaries to be relevant by convention time. So he’ll probably stick around until Super Tuesday. Who knows? Maybe Huntsman can unite conservative Republicans, who don’t like Romney’s record, along with Independents, who don’t like his partisan pandering, and beat the guy unable to break thirty percent in national primary polls, in a prolonged primary battle.
As that’s quite doubtful, there’s some speculation that John Huntsman’s goal is to be the “next in line” for the Republican nomination, so that he’ll be a credible candidate in the 2016 cycle. Jonathan Chait sums up what he believes to be Huntsman’s strategy, and notes that it doesn’t quite work if Romney wins the nomination.
So why, after diagnosing the party as too extreme to nominate him, is Huntsman running anyway? I suspect he’s setting himself up for 2016. If the GOP loses the election, then conceivably the party will come to believe Huntsman’s diagnosis that it’s too extreme and has demographically marginalized itself. If so, Huntsman would be well positioned to lead.
But for that plan to work, a couple of things need to happen. First, Huntsman needs a credible showing this time around. Republicans usually nominate candidates who have run before and built up name-recognition and a core of loyalists.Second, and even more crucially, Romney must not win the 2012 nomination. For Republicans to conclude that they must move to the center, they have to lose while waging a right-wing campaign. They’ll want to embrace a candidate who could avoid the mistakes of the past. But if Romney is the losing candidate, the party will instead decide that he was too centrist, and the answer is to nominate a true believer. (Their shared Mormonism would make Republicans even less prone to turn 2012 buyers’ remorse into 2016 Huntsmania.)
Andrew Sullivan often states his hope that Huntsman can lead the party to sanity after President Obama’s second term comes to an end. He’s a bit more optimistic on Huntsman’s chances of distinguishing his record from that of Mitt Romney, who is literally a distant relative.
When you realize this intelligent and capable two-term governor from the rock-ribbed Republican state of Utah, with deep domestic and foreign policy experience, has one tenth of the support of a pizza guy who emerged from motivational speaking and talk radio, and who admits he knows nothing about foreign policy and has never held elective office in his life … well, you have the core reality of today’s Ailes-led, resentment-fueled GOP.
The only hope is for Huntsman to keep at it, place a marker and wait. The Republicans, just like the British Tories after 1997, may go through several unelectable candidates before they find their own Cameron. And what were the two issues that helped Cameron break through to the wider public? Climate change and homosexuality. When the right accepts reality on those topics – that the two phenomena even exist – you’ll know it’s one the way back.
There are many newly elected Governors and Senators who could plausibly run for a Presidential primary in 2016. Huntsman still needs a strong showing in 2012 to stand out in a 2016 crowd that could include Scott Brown, Chris Christie, Brian Sandoval, Susanna Martinez and/ or David Petraeus. Plus, the more conservative candidates (Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, likely Indiana governor Mike Pence, possible Virginia Governor Ken Cuccinelli) will have much better resumes than Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain, and less baggage than Newt Gingrich.
There are a few small things in Huntsman’s favor. Some of his potential primary opponents have to win re-election, especially Scott Brown. And as Huntsman’s not serving in office, should Obama win reelection, he’ll have several years to position himself in the invisible primary. Bob Dole recovered from a horrific showing in the 1980 presidential primary to win the 1988 Iowa caucuses. But he spent the intervening years in the Senate, a luxury Huntsman is unlikely to have. By running against Romney, he burned some bridges in his home state where Mitt’s been popular since running the Salt Lake City Olympics. It’s unlikely that Mike Lee (currently the nation’s youngest Senator) is going anywhere, and Orrin Hatch will probably be reelected in 2012, if he doesn’t lose the Republican primary to former State Senator Dan Liljenquist, a 37-year-old tea partier.
Huntsman’s fortunes are tied to those of other political figures. If Romney loses the General Election, Huntsman will be left trying to convince primary voters that their mistake was choosing a guy who couldn’t be trusted. Which isn’t the best sell for an Ambassador who ran against his boss.
He could hope that Gingrich rebounds in the primary. There were some earlier political pieces about how Huntsman might be angling for VP, and I dismissed those as he was a poor fit for the likes of Romney (there won’t be two Mormons on a presidential ticket) and Rick Perry (another Western Governor). But Huntsman might actually be a good running mate for Newt, given his stable family life, foreign policy credentials, executive experience, and regional appeal in the west. Plus, a guy with Gingrich’s partisan reputation would benefit from having a running mate who worked for President Obama.
As a former Ambassador to China, Huntsman is qualified to be Secretary of State in a President Romney administration. So this might be his best shot. If Romney is really popular, voters in 2020 might like the idea of another Mormon in the White House.