Jon Huntsman sure does know how to win over undecided conservative voters. In a recent conversation with Politico, the former Utah governor said he thinks the GOP will cycle back to sanity in the future. The implication that the Republican Party is currently mired in a kind of insanely extreme conservatism was clear.
In an interview Friday, the Utah governor turned China ambassador said bluntly that the GOP had lost its equilibrium in the Obama era but predicted it would eventually return to its bearings — and vindicate his own brand of pragmatism.
“I believe in the ideas put forward by Theodore White, the cycles of history,” Huntsman told POLITICO. “I believe we are in one such cycle. I think that cycle ultimately takes us to a sane Republican Party based on real ideas.”
Suggesting that the GOP currently is something other than sane isn’t the best way to win the support of Republican voters and may stir speculation that he’s preparing to launch a third-party bid. But Huntsman increasingly appears less focused on the political landscape of 2012 and more fixated on what his party will look like post-Obama — and what role he could have in it, come 2016.
All along, it has been hard to understand why Huntsman of all people shudders at a reddening GOP, why he wants to distance himself from the conservative movement, why he jockeys for a centrist position. After all, as Tim Carney at The Washington Examiner has pointed out, Huntsman actually governed as a conservative. Carney writes:
These days, a core liberal effort is tilting our tax code more severely against the wealthy, but Huntsman did the opposite as governor of Utah, creating a flat tax as part of the largest tax cut in state history.
While Rick Santorum is supposedly extreme for his defense of the unborn, Huntsman outlawed second-trimester abortion in Utah and made late-term abortion a felony, while signing every piece of pro-life legislation that came his way.
In the American Conservative magazine, Michael Brendan Dougherty laid out Huntsman’s long list of accomplishments on the core conservative issues of “guns, babies, taxes.”
Huntsman has some moderate and liberal marks on his record, but far fewer than Mitt Romney, who once ran against Ted Kennedy from the left, and who created the prototype for Obamacare.
Even the various one-time official conservative standard-bearers in this race have records arguably to the left of Huntsman. Herman Cain and Rick Santorum endorsed Romney over more conservative candidates in 2008. Cain supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Santorum championed much of Bush’s big-government agenda and saved liberal Arlen Specter from a conservative primary challenge in 2004. Newt Gingrich’s dalliances with Nancy Pelosi and Freddie Mac are far to the left of anything Huntsman has done.
In other words, Huntsman might actually at his core be the purest conservative in the race. But, clearly, he didn’t want to be perceived as that. At every turn, he has made a point to cast himself as the “reasonable Republican,” the open-minded, pragmatic, anything-but-crazy candidate who believes in evolution and trusts scientists on global warming.
Huntsman reminds me of nothing so much as he reminds me of a conservative college student who hedges his views in an attempt to retain his professors’ good opinion. It’s understandable. Surely we’ve all gone through times when we didn’t necessarily like who we are or when we wanted to please others even if it meant pretending to be something we’re not exactly. Perhaps, when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Huntsman assumed the president’s progressivism would gain in popularity while his own conservatism would wane in appeal. Perhaps he feared success for a true conservative would be elusive in the new Obama era — so he did what he could to position himself to be successful in that era. He accepted the ambassadorship to China, and offered rhetorical support for pet liberal causes.
Carney suggests that Huntsman’s failure to gain traction in the 2012 race indicates that the GOP base has fallen for Huntsman’s failed identity politics and now favors style over substance. That is, Carney seems to think voters should look to Huntsman’s record only — and not to the “moderate” mantle Huntsman has self-consciously (if stupidly) assumed in his attempt to win the GOP nomination — to assess him. But I’d argue Huntsman’s failure to gain traction signals that voters rarely like a candidate who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. Hardly anything is as uninspiring or as easily dismissed as a person who is not even convinced of himself.