08.22.11

Jon Huntsman’s Crazy Strategy

The former Utah governor is generating headlines with his daring reasonable-man approach. Michael Tomasky on how that tack might pay off—in 2016.

Far be it from me to fail to do my small part to help seal Jon Huntsman’s doom, so count me as one more impressed liberal. His tweet from last week about believing in science and evolution and his remarks from his This Week appearance on Sunday, in which he disparaged his opponents on various reality-based grounds, were the words of a man who actually occupies this planet (and I mean the 4.5 billion-year-old one, not the one formed divinely 6,000 years ago when caveman and dinosaur fell simultaneously from the sky). Occupying this planet, of course, gives him no chance of winning the GOP primary, but it does give the rest of us a narrow thread of hope about the future.

You’re familiar with the tweet: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” If you missed the This Week comments, the highlights were that he laid into Rick Perry over the latter’s remarks about Ben Bernanke, and scorned Michele Bachmann’s ignorant bragging about being against raising the debt ceiling. Interestingly, Huntsman’s most clear-eyed observation was about his old boss, Barack Obama: “So I have to say that there was zero leadership on display in terms of my opponents. Leaders—zero leadership on display in terms of the president, who should have used the bully pulpit well ahead of time. He should have walked away from the teleprompter. The people want you to speak from your heart and soul. Tell us where you want us to go. Tell us what you expect from Congress. Tell us what's on your mind. That never happened.” I hope David Plouffe was watching.

The Huntsman strategy here is obvious: position himself as the moderate and reasonable guy on the off chance Republicans decide to be moderate and reasonable. We must assume he is aware that his odds on this are rather long, so what he’s really hoping for is to be the consensus candidate of 2016. Maybe the party just has to go through this purge, this Reign of Terror; so just let it do that, and once it does and nominates an extremist who can’t beat a weak incumbent during a time of 9 percent unemployment rates, and the heads are piled high enough in the tumbrels and enough people finally have returned to their senses, he will ride the Thermidorian wave to victory after Obama leaves town.

It would be such a good thing for the country if some GOP legislators came down with a case of the Huntsman flu.

It’s not completely implausible, and it does provide the occasion to make a point that needs making from time to time in this poisonous political culture. I enjoy political combat as much as the next guy, but I really do wish that there were more than three or four Republican moderates out there. Huntsman is hardly even a moderate—his beliefs on taxation, for example, are a long way from progressive. As Utah governor, he replaced six state income-tax brackets ranging from 2.3 to 7 percent with one rate of 5 percent, meaning that he lowered taxes on higher-income Utahans and raised taxes on lower-income residents. And he has said he wants a federal flat tax, which would almost surely end up starving the government of even more money and would by its nature be regressive. A man who grew up in the comfort provided by his father’s successful vision for egg cartons isn’t suddenly going to turn into Bob Reich.

Remember: at the recent Fox News debate, when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would oppose a long-term budget deal that cut $10 for every single dollar it raised in revenue, Huntsman’s hand shot up just like Mitt Romney’s and Newt Gingrich’s did. There are some forms of standing out he is clearly not willing to do, and let’s keep focused on those, because liberals are too easily won over (as he surely knows) by Republicans who sound reasonable on cultural issues.

Even so, his remarks about science, Perry, and the debt ceiling all suggest a man who doesn’t think compromise is, to use Perry’s word, treason. It would be such a good thing for the country if some GOP legislators came down with a case of the Huntsman flu. Maybe if Huntsman can survive a while on the stump—and since he can self-finance to a large extent there would seem to be no reason that he couldn’t—and keep after his opponents from the perspective expressed over the last few days, he can help create an atmosphere where come 2013, if Obama is reelected, some GOP senators who know better might be emboldened to behave more maturely.

The more likely long-term scenario is that Huntsman will have negligible impact on his party. Unless the GOP does something truly self-immolating next year, like nominating a Bachmann who goes on to win 120 electoral votes, the current trajectory will likely continue for the foreseeable future. I think the Republicans, a stubborn bunch, will have to endure eight years of Obama and then eight years of some other Democrat (Hillary?) before they finally acknowledge certain realities, and even that seems iffy. So that’s 2024 at the earliest. Huntsman will be 64 then. But Sarah Palin will be just 60.