Jon Huntsman’s plight in the Republican race brings to mind the autumn ’88 Saturday Night Live skit where Michael Dukakis eyes his opponent, George H. W. Bush, and says in bewilderment, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
Seriously, it’s bewildering that the twice-elected Utah governor and ex-ambassador to China continues to be stuck at one percent in the Republican polls. Surely he too is wondering how it’s possible that a guy with his substantive experience could be left in the dust by a know-nothing scandal-tainted pizza peddler. The conventional wisdom decrees that the GOP race has boiled down to a choice between Mitt Romney and a “not-Romney” alternative drawn from the third-rate ranks of Perry/Cain/Gingrich – but I would contend that Mitt’s most worthy challenger is Huntsman. Even though likely Republican primary voters already seem to have written him off.As Huntsman demonstrated yesterday, on Meet the Press, he is more authentically conservative than Romney, he is not a serial flip-flopper like Romney, and, most importantly, if matched against President Obama next fall, he would be just as electable as Romney.So what’s his problem? Clearly, it’s his tone and persona. He has the requisite conservative credentials, but his moderate temperament doesn’t click with the tea partyers who hunger for anger. He comes off as way too sane. These traits were also evident yesterday on Meet the Press.Initially, of course, Huntsman had no opportunity to make his own case. It was a symptom of his low poll status that the opening questions – more than a dozen in a row – were all designed to elicit his thoughts about Cain and Romney. What does he think about the sexual harassment scandal? (Response: “It’s up to Herman Cain to get the information out, and get it out in total.”) What does he think about Cain’s ignorance of China, not knowing that China went nuclear way back in 1964? (“It would be nice to have a president who actually knew them intimately well in terms of the economics and security issues.”) What does he think about Romney? (“When you’re on too many sides of the issues of the day, when you don’t have that core…I think that becomes a problem.”)That latter remark, about Romney, is important. Roughly 75 percent of Republican voters continue to resist Romney in part because they distrust his serial re-calibrations on issues such as gay rights, health coverage mandates, climate change, and abortion. Huntsman doesn’t have that baggage. As he pointed out yesterday, his track record “is based on pro-life, always have been, pro-Second Amendment, pro-growth, the largest tax cut that state had ever seen in history, the second voucher bill ever in the nation, I signed. Healthcare reform without a mandate. I mean, the list goes on and on. You’d be hard pressed when you look at my governing record not to say that’s a good conservative governing record and style.”Ah, but it’s his style that apparently bars the way. He emits no visceral heat. He doesn’t rant like Newt; he’s not a performance artist like Cain; he doesn’t utter extremist idiocies, or seem addled at the podium, like Perry. He has the conservative prose, but not the poetry.
As Republican consultant Ed Rogers remarked the other day, Huntsman “somehow missed the whole tea party movement while he was in China…It is too bad, because the GOP needs his experience and his voice of reason.” Huntsman “is authentically conservative,” but, alas, he is too “thoughtfully nuanced” for the current Republican mood that abhors nuance.Worse yet, he’s too honest. Rather than pander a la Romney to the most irrational elements of the party base, Huntsman yesterday critiqued the pitfalls of extremism: “I’m talking about a Republican Party that dismisses mainstream science. I think in order for us to be successful we’ve got to win over some independents, we’ve got to do the math. The math has to be in our favor. You can’t run away from mainstream science, for example, and expect to win the race. You can’t be on an extreme end of politics and expect to win over the independent vote. That’s going to be a critical calculus in making sure that the next president is a Republican. You can’t avoid that reality.”Well, it’s hard to see how you can win the Republican nomination by declaring yourself to be a staunch supporter of rational scientific inquiry. Which is too bad for the GOP, because if Huntsman was indeed the nominee and uttered that exact same argument during an autumn debate, the swing voters would love it. Indeed, Team Obama has long known that Huntsman would be formidable in a general election. The White House would much rather run against Romney, whom they are already attacking as a flip-flopper with no core convictions (a strategy I wrote about yesterday in my newspaper column). Huntsman would be tougher to attack; after all, they thought enough of his credentials to make him ambassador to China.Chris Ingram, a Republican consultant, wrote recently that “Huntsman is a statesman in a period when we’re apparently not convinced that he’s what we want – even if it is what we need.” It speaks volumes about the grassroots Republican mood that none of Huntsman’s efforts have moved the needle. Indeed, the only pro-Huntsman buzz has been generated by three of his daughters, the Twitter sensations who star in the online ad that satirizes Cain’s cigarette-smoking campaign manager.When asked about his daughters yesterday, Huntsman replied, with an air of bemusement and resignation, “You give a major speech on foreign policy, ‘Changing America’s Role in the World,’ and you get three hits on YouTube. My daughters go up with some silly ad, and they get a half a million, or whatever it is today. It goes viral. So this is the world of politics we live in today.”As his daughters seem to understand, it’s the poetry that matters most, not the prose.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1