David Frum

01.16.12

The Huntsman Finale

The Huntsman campaign needed more than just an attractive candidate.

The Huntsman campaign was probably doomed before it started. Mitt Romney already securely occupied the political terrain Huntsman needed to take. For those Republicans looking for a practical, business-oriented, not highly ideological former governor—well, as the French knights say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “We’ve already got one.”

That duplicate Huntsman began with a huge early lead in connections, commitments, and campaign experience. Unless Romney badly stumbled, there was not going to be room for Huntsman—and Romney did not stumble.

Yet I think it’s also clear that Huntsman did not run the very best campaign he could have run. We all have our 2 cents as to what went wrong. Here’s mine.

Huntsman offered a critique of what has gone wrong in the modern Republican party: too anti-science, too socially conservative, too militarily interventionist, too hostile to expertise.

He did not however offer a unique selling proposition for his own candidacy. Even supposing a Republican primary voter agreed with every point in Huntsman’s critique (and surprisingly many do agree)—what then? Huntsman’s answer to the party’s problems was himself: smart, sophisticated, worldly, pragmatic. But every one of those characteristics is shared with Romney. What Huntsman did not offer was a programmatic alternative. On the contrary, the Huntsman program doubled down on Norquistism: big tax cuts, Ryan plan, etc.

This program created a contrast with Romney, but in the wrong direction: the least ideological Republican candidate now offered the most ideological economic platform. While Romney, the self-made multimillionaire, showed little regard for the economic travails of the bottom 80% of the American population, Huntsman, the son of a billionaire, showed even less.

It was left to Rick Santorum to speak to the economic anxieties of the middle class. Santorum’s ideas may be a messy and useless jumble, but they qualify as something in a field otherwise offering nothing. In a curious way, even Ron Paul is offering something: an explanation of how the economy fell into trouble and how it might recover. Paul’s explanation may be the economic equivalent of leeches and bleeding, but again: it’s something when others offer nothing.

I’m not suggesting that a more middle-class oriented platform would have saved the Huntsman campaign. As stated, the difficulties were inherent and inescapable. But at least such a platform would have provided a rationale for a campaign that otherwise threw too much weight on the candidate’s personality. That personality was attractive and impressive, but it was not enough. It never is.