Jon Huntsman’s promise to conduct his presidential campaign “on the high road” is a risky proposition. It’s a tough pledge to keep, and the closer he sticks to it, the harder it may be for him to win.
The Republican primary electorate is often described as angry, passionate, and energized. Obama-bashing hasn’t appeared to hurt conservatives so far; Michele Bachmann made her name in part by suggesting on MSNBC in 2008 that he might have “anti-American views.” The former Utah governor and his camp are assuming there exists a different type of GOP voter: one who is tired of all the shouting and impugning and red meat, who would prefer someone “decent, calm, wise, firm, and disciplined,” as one of Huntsman’s New Agey videos puts it while depicting a motorcyclist in the wild. Or, as another video says, “Different. Fresh. New. Not really a politician at all.”
That sounds more like an appeal to general-election voters than to the Tea Party or the Club for Growth. But John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief strategist, told me that war, debt, and joblessness call for a primary candidate like Huntsman. “The country’s hungry for a problem-solver, not someone who’s trying out for a cable-news show,” he said. Then he added, in an apparent reference to President Obama and Donald Trump: “They had the gooey hope cotton candy and they’ve also seen the carnival-barking opposition. They want these things fixed. That’s not going to be possible if we end up in a bickering contest.”
This uplifting, above-politics approach seemed to falter a bit last month when Esquire quoted Weaver as calling the GOP field “the weakest since 1940” and the party “a bunch of cranks.” He mused of Mitt Romney, “what version are we on now?” and said of Tim Pawlenty, “there’s nothing worse than seeing a nice guy pretend that he’s angry” to appease the angry wing of the GOP.
When I asked Weaver if that constituted the high road, he countered: “What part of what I said wasn’t true? The reinvention of the Romney effort is well documented. I’m not the first person or the 10,000th person to say that.” In our own conversation, besides the gooey hope and carnival-barking, Weaver said the White House and its “associated cronies around the country” were already attacking Huntsman. He conceded that Huntsman and Obama are similarly no-drama in temperament, but added: “The difference, of course, is that Barack Obama has a philosophy about fixing problems but never fixed any. Jon Huntsman as a business leader and as a governor actually solved problems.”
Leaving aside the question of whether the survival of the auto industry, the halting of frightening monthly job losses and stock market plunges and the killing of Osama bin Laden count as fixing problems, it’s clear the high road doesn’t mean lack of edge or unilateral disarmament. Policy differences will be noted. And if rivals attack, Weaver said, “We’ll go after them… in a civil, respectful way.”
There were two high-minded, reformist candidates for president in 2000. Bill Bradley tried the approach against Al Gore, and some of their debates were painful to watch. Gore was super-aggressive. Bradley missed many opportunities to criticize the vice president over policy differences and sometimes failed even to defend his own record. He did not have a taste for political combat and it showed.
The other candidate was John McCain. Weaver was the brains behind that campaign and now has crafted a strikingly similar plan for Huntsman. It starts with strong credentials, emphasis on biography, plenty of media access, and distancing from some party orthodoxies. The strategic playbook includes skipping the Iowa caucuses, a difficult venue for both men because they oppose corn-based ethanol subsidies and aren’t particularly popular with the Christian right; focusing on New Hampshire, which is more moderate and concerned with fiscal issues, and has an open primary not limited to Republicans; making a strong stand in South Carolina, which also has an open primary; and gaining momentum in a large, diverse state (Michigan in 2000 for McCain, Florida in 2012 for Huntsman).
Most familiar from the McCain 2000 era is the positioning of Huntsman as a different kind of politician. In his race against establishment pick George W. Bush, McCain ran against Washington and lobbyists and big money in politics. It worked well enough to yield a huge upset victory in New Hampshire. He went on to lose South Carolina to Bush after a mudbath of a campaign, including an ad in which McCain said that a Bush ad “twists the truth like Clinton, and we’re all tired of that. As president I’ll be conservative and always tell you the truth no matter what.”
Dan Schnur, who was McCain’s communications director at the time, said that ad knocked McCain off his pedestal. “Once the McCain campaign succumbed and went back to politics as usual, by going negative against Bush, there was nothing left to separate the candidate from most politicians,” he told me. “Once that ad ran, he wasn’t a reformer or an outsider anymore. He was one career politician throwing mud at another one.”
Schnur, now director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said he learned that it is easier to be noble when you’re at 3 percent in the polls than when you’re in the thick of a tight nomination fight. “The test for Huntsman is not staying positive this week,” he said. “It’s to be just as positive the week before the Florida primary when Romney is beating the living daylights out of him.”
Weaver said that South Carolina loss had nothing to do with high road or low road and everything to do with Bush outspending McCain 33-to-3. Still, it’s a cautionary tale for any politician. In 2008, Obama attempted the high road but responded to attacks, had the occasional slip (such as his snarky aside to Hillary Clinton, “you’re likable enough”), and ran negative ads in local markets. This year, Tim Pawlenty has said it’s “a time for truth,” an invitation to special scrutiny of everything he says and does. And now comes Huntsman, setting off on the high road with faux-folksy video segments that hype his elite, sterling résumé and apparently perfect family, yet a background so unconventional that he was a high-school dropout and rock keyboardist and still loves eating at greasy spoons. The paradox is captured perfectly when the narrator in one video, actor Brian Dennehy, says Huntsman “speaks Hokkien, whatever that is.”
Democrats and Huntsman’s GOP rivals have wasted no time trying to bait him, with parody videos and press calls and attempted burial via fulsome praise for his Obama administration service as ambassador to China. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum released a video with the words “Didn’t sign the antiabortion pledge. Just like Mitt Romney” superimposed over a motorcyclist who then wipes out. Utah Democrats had already released a cyclist parody that said Huntsman “has reversed positions he took as governor. Riding away from his record.”
Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told reporters that “we always welcome Obama administration officials in South Carolina.” When I asked him how long Huntsman could stay on the high road, he estimated “about two nanoseconds” and added: “The high road is the road above the fray, and you can’t run for political office in South Carolina without getting in the fray.”
Perhaps the most inflammatory incoming ammunition against Huntsman can be found these days at RedState.com, where blogger Erick Erickson is waging a jihad on grounds that Huntsman was disloyal to his president while serving him in China. “Jon Huntsman Calls Obama Remarkable Before Plotting His Treachery,” one of his latest headlines declares. The article shows a picture of a note Huntsman wrote to Obama before leaving for Beijing. The new ambassador had underlined the word “remarkable.”
Overheated, sure, but it’s easy to imagine Huntsman’s rivals raising questions about his overnight metamorphosis from Obama ally to Obama rival. Huntsman, in turn, would have to defend his character. That’s never a pleasant task for a politician and it’s especially irksome to people running largely on their character, as McCain did and Huntsman is doing now.
Huntsman was considering a 2012 race in 2009, before Obama asked him to join the administration, but Weaver said there was no extensive discussions of message or strategy at that point. With Huntsman barred by law from politics, the plan for him was developed from “our sense of knowing about him from afar,” Weaver said. “We discussed it internally, among ourselves. When he returned, it matched his thinking.” The only thing left for Huntsman to do was to “see if there was blue sky, if his candidacy could compete in the marketplace,” Weaver said. “That took a couple of days and we were off and running.”
The template developed by McCain in 1999 came so close to working when Bush was a prohibitive frontrunner, said Schnur, that it would be reasonable to try it again amid a far more fluid field. It’s also reasonable because it fits Huntsman quite comfortably. When he calls politics “corrosive” and positions himself as a voice of reason, it’s credible in part because of his service to Obama. Like McCain in 2000, Huntsman really is different. But also like McCain, he verges on the holier than thou. Huntsman has lofty goals, but you can’t do good unless you win the White House, and sometimes you’ve got to descend from the high road to get there.