Huntsman in Limbo

Perhaps the Huntsman campaign was still-born — doomed from the beginning to be a soothing sideshow to a bombastic, shallow Republican primary. It’s occasionally a refreshing break for this Northeastern liberal elitist, tired of hearing about the fate awaiting Ben Bernanke down South. Or about how Michelle Bachmann infiltrated the IRS to extract secret, insider knowledge. Or that evolution is really taking a beating in the scientific community these days — which is why Texas requires that it’s taught right alongside creationism in public schools. (As a side note — it’s, of course, sad that the governor of Texas doesn’t know his own state’s laws, but perhaps appropriate that a secessionist isn’t aware of Supreme Court precedent.) Or that…

The list goes on and on. And each passing day seems to vindicate the Huntsman campaign’s strategy…in my eyes. But I don’t vote in the Republican primaries. (Or the Democratic primaries, but, let’s be honest, we know which side of the ballot my finger gravitates towards.) Is Huntsman really throwing out enough red meat to draw in the tea party crowd or the state fair attendees? Huntsman could conceivably draw some votes away from Obama, but will someone with a moderate stance on a wide range of issues and a history of compromise win over ideological purists?

Further, Huntsman’s campaign is only feeding into Democrats’ strategies. By criticizing the Republican party from the inside, he’s allowing outside parties to make the case that, “See, they really are dysfunctional!” The DNC is already using soundbites from Huntsman’s media appearances to make the case against current Republican front-runners. By criticizing some of the pillars of the Republican platform, he risks not only fueling resentment among Republican voters, but endangering his own party in the upcoming election. His strategy could backfire in Republican primaries, leading to his defeat. But it could continue to resonate through the general election, even if he doesn’t lose.

In the case of Perry/Bachmann vs. Obama, Democrats are going to use Huntsman as an example of how extreme the Republican party is, of how willing it is to grind the wheels of government to a halt, to bend everyone and everything to its will, and to eliminate any room for nuance. The Republican presidential candidate will no doubt suffer, but so will many other Republican politicians across the country in relatively centrist states and districts. Hold on to that last bit, and let’s imagine a Huntsman candidacy. Let’s imagine that photogenic, wholesome family gracing the covers of Vogue, Time, and Newsweek. Let’s imagine Huntsman gracefully disagreeing with President Obama in their debates, eschewing cheap talking points, and engaging in a substantial, nuanced discussion of the issues. Would that serve the Republicans who rode the tea party express to Washington any better? If Huntsman wins, would he carry any other Republican lawmakers with him, or push them out as he charts his new and daring middle ground?

The 2010 primaries forced moderate Republicans to embrace adaptation and dart right in order to survive. Moderates like Bob Bennett failed to make the cut. Others, like John McCain, managed to survive on a steady diet of red meat. Only the truly wacky, like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, lost. A likable Republican moderate like Huntsman could represent an existential threat to Republicans by signalling the 2010 strategy’s long(-er) term liability to Democrats.

Huntsman seems to criticize his own party more than the president. And the press certainly pays more attention to him when he’s bashing Perry, Bachmann, and Republican members of Congress than when he’s offering rational, tempered criticisms of the president. I don’t see Hunstman winning the nomination. This stage of the game may not be entirely predictive of the eventual outcome, but I imagine that Republicans will want to muffle him, while Democrats would really prefer battling Bachmann or Perry for the presidency. Even Herman Cain is still doing extremely well among the subset of Republicans who actually know who he is, so too is Giulani, who has more recognition and an 84% favorable rating.

As someone who gravitates towards nuance and isn’t interested in one-handed economists, I’d give anything for a Huntsman candidacy. Well, not really, but I’d really, really like to see one. The country is in a perilous place — mired in conflicts abroad, trying to topple brutal regimes (some with nuclear ambitions), caught in a stalled recovery, dealing with a declining Europe, propping up NATO, and trying to calm volatile markets. When an election involves two strong candidates having a frank discussion of the issues, it allows American’s to clarify their own views, to understand the problems and to rationally decide how best to tackle them. But when presented with candidates at extremes or even just one candidate at an extreme, we don’t have that discussion. It’s a damn shame. And it’s what leads to events like the debt-ceiling crisis and the ensuing buyer’s (or voter’s) remorse. A candidate should be forced to lay out how they plan to govern during the course of election and not mindlessly advertise that they’d lower the cost of gas to some made-up number. Yet, we continue to get the latter and what happens post-election doesn’t really correlate with the future we imagined in the ballot box.