Jon Huntsman, who’s leaving the GOP race and backing Mitt Romney, didn’t accomplish much as a presidential candidate, but he did accomplish a fair amount as a media personality. As candidate, he got very few votes. A whopping 725 in Iowa, and then 41,945 in New Hampshire, a considerably more respectable number, but even so, enough to win a seat in the state legislature in most states, but not much else. Some in the besotted media once predicted he’d win in the Granite State, where his sensible, I’m-not-crazy conservatism was allegedly going to stand him in good stead. It didn’t happen.
Precisely because he established early on that he wasn’t a complete flat-earther (with his famous tweet that said “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”), the media took a shine to him. He wore leather jackets. He made funny, post-modern-ish, ironic web ads. He went on Letterman and played piano, rock’n’roll, boogie-woogie, Johnny Johnson-style piano, right there next to Paul Shaffer, and acquitted himself pretty decently.
Every primary season needs a “you know who I really like?” figure. Back in 1988, Democrat Bruce Babbitt pioneered this genre. Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, had utterly no chance of winning the nomination, which gave him the freedom to be a little different, a little quirky, thereby conveying the idea that he was somehow more interesting than the others. This candidate gives insiders the crucial opportunity to lament that it’s all become a big-money game, and if our democracy weren’t so tainted, this Candidate X would be in the hunt. Huntsman filled that role perfectly.
Obama clearly saw Huntsman as a potential threat for 2012 and was obviously trying to box him in by appointing him ambassador to China. And it worked.
And he played the part well. His moment of glory, of course, came in that Sunday morning New Hampshire debate on January 8, when he lectured Romney about Romney’s attack on him in the debate the night before for serving as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. Romney handed Huntsman a great opportunity to cloak himself in righteousness, which he duly did, rebuking Romney by saying that “this nation is divided… because of attitudes like that.” Romney had said the night before: “I’m sorry, governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.”
Actually, I think Romney had an excellent point. Ambassador to China is a big job. It’s not ambassador to Barbados. It meant Huntsman really was working—and for the Obama administration, not “for America.” As a liberal voter, I’d be far less inclined to support a Democratic candidate who’d taken a major job with a Republican administration. That’s not toxic partisanship. That’s having some basic political principles. I always thought it very strange that Huntsman took the job. Obama—who I assume could have found a Mandarin-speaking Democrat if he’d really tried—clearly saw him as a potential threat for 2012 and was obviously trying to box him in. And it worked.
So no tears for Huntsman. First of all, he’s worth many millions of dollars, so he needs no one’s sympathy. Secondly, he made his own bed. And third, even though he lost the voting contest, he did very well indeed in the media contest and is nicely positioned to have another go in 2016. He’ll have some explaining to do to The State, South Carolina’s flagship newspaper, which just endorsed him Sunday. (Whether The State will re-endorse between now and Saturday is suddenly kind of an interesting question.) But he’ll be the media favorite from jump street.