Time magazine’s current issue features a profile of Jon Huntsman, Jr. entitled “The Cool Kid.” It seems that writer, Melinda Henneberger, has caught on to what we’ve been saying here for the past five months. Read the whole thing!
But is the understated 51-year-old Jon Meade Huntsman Jr. really the answer to the Republican Party’s personnel problem? He is, after all, a pro-civil-union Mormon who has just finished nearly two years of service for Obama in the land many Americans consider the new evil empire. He is pro-environment — a little too green for many in his party — and hardly anyone knows who he is. Though Huntsman’s path to the nomination is a certified long shot, you have to wonder why so many on both the right and left seem to be freaking out at the prospect of his jumping into the race.
Democrats who fear that Huntsman would do well against Obama in next year’s general election are busy pelting him with rose petals — take that, you wonderful man! — that they openly hope will disqualify him in the eyes of Republican Party regulars. But it’s Huntsman’s fellow conservatives who are in a swivet over all the attention he’s gotten since arriving home from China on April 30. As governor, the antiabortion, pro-gun Huntsman did all the things Tea Party conservatives say they want, slashing taxes and adding jobs. He did that in part by using his sway with Mormon elders to pave the way for a reform of state liquor laws that made it easier to get a drink.
Yet on the right, he still somehow stands accused both of writing the President the kind of “love letters” most of us refer to as thank-you notes and of showing disloyalty to his country by “plotting” to run against that same President while in a position to undermine him on the world stage. Both what he says and what he doesn’t say in our interviews make clear, though, that he really has not been steeping himself in presidential politics. “I’m not even sure I could name all of them,” he says of his GOP rivals.
Fortunately for him, much of the country can’t either.
This is what we’ve been saying for awhile now. Democrats have no vested interest in praising ANY potential rival (as the President and Jimmy Carter have both done with Huntsman) except to rile up the Republican base against that candidate. They do it because, to some extent, it works. If you don’t believe me take a look at the right wing blogosphere. A Republican electorate still smarting from a 2008 election in which they feel their candidate (McCain) was foisted upon them is apparently wary of anyone to the left of Michele Bachmann. Thankfully blog commenters do not decide primaries. Ordinary people who do not read blogs and tend to drift towards the center do.
There’s no serious debate about why Obama picked Huntsman for the China job: First, Huntsman knows an awful lot about the country. And because the President’s advisers saw the then governor of Utah as a potential future rival, Obama could score points as a uniter by appointing a Republican while also relocating his competition to the other side of the planet. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. One sign of Team Obama’s discomfort over his early return is that the President’s top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, has gone out of his way to emphasize how helpful to Obama Huntsman has been. And he warns that it’ll be mighty tricky for Huntsman to pivot from working with the President to running against him.
So why did the wildly popular governor — Huntsman had an 80% approval rating in his deeply conservative home state when he left it halfway through his second term — agree to take the China job, knowing that part of Obama’s motivation in choosing him was to get him out of the way? And having done so, why did he return home to run anyway? To the first question, Huntsman says it was his sense of duty to country that made the decision so straightforward; he had worked for Ronald Reagan soon after college, and as George H.W. Bush’s man in Singapore, he had been the youngest U.S. ambassador anywhere in a century. After a stint in his family business during the Clinton years, he had returned to Washington and served under George W. Bush as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative. When the President — any President — calls, he says, you answer.
But this is 2012 when (according to some of the more insane voices on the right) duty to one’s country is only patriotic if you are serving when a Republican has the presidency. Oh well. It is only May of 2011. The election is still 18 months away. We act as though there is no time to get to know these new candidates. There is time. Probably too much of it, actually. But I expect that Jon Huntsman will become the sole voice of reason in a negative, highly partisan GOP field in an election in which the more extreme members of the base will require a steady stream of red meat. Huntsman does not need to run that type of campaign to be effective against the President. This is indeed doable.