The Beltway is buzzing over former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s suddenly revived 2012 ambitions. Huntsman is reportedly about to resign as Obama’s ambassador to China in order to “explore” a White House bid, and a cabal of advisers who were prominent in John McCain’s 2008 campaign is plotting his strategy.
At least on one level, the Huntsman boomlet isn’t terribly surprising. He was, after all, considered a big future GOP star and possible 2012 candidate just before he accepted the role in Beijing, and, in fact, his appointment was interpreted by many at the time as a shrewd White House maneuver to sideline a potentially dangerous rival. He is heir to a huge fortune, is telegenic and unquestionably intelligent, and, in addition to having been a very popular governor, has the kind of resumé heavy in foreign policy that many D.C. insiders find most impressive in a potential POTUS.
But Huntsman has one big problem: his prescription, before the 2010 mid-terms, that the solution to the Republican Party’s political woes was to move to the center. This idea generated great publicity back in 2009, during earlier talk of a Huntsman candidacy. But it ended up being more or less 180 degrees away from the direction the GOP chose in the mid-terms, which pushed the party far to the right. Now, as he again gears up for 2012, Hunstman’s move-center strategy could come back to bite him.
In a 2009 profile of Huntsman for TNR, Zvika Krieger outlined the Utah governor’s ideological and strategic heresies, including his progressive stances on climate change (which many conservatives don’t even believe in), immigration, civil unions for gay couples, and education:
In dozens of interviews over the past few weeks, he has characterized Republicans as “devoid of ideas” and “gasping for air,” decrying the GOP’s “gratuitous partisanship,” comparing it to “a very narrow party of angry people,” and describing its strategy as “obstruct and obfuscate … grousing and complaining.”
Of course, this positioning for 2012 occurred right before Huntsman was sent to China—and, more significantly, right before the Tea Party Movement took off. The 2010 election cycle, throughout which Huntsman worked overseas for a president whom conservatives despised with unusual intensity, appeared to vindicate the very different belief of far-right activists that all the political problems of the GOP were derived from insufficient fidelity to conservative ideology and insufficiently ferocious opposition to “socialist” policies. Conservative GOP candidates targeted the very policies Huntsman had supported, and the type of politician the former governor had branded himself as being. In Huntsman’s own state of Utah, incumbent Senator Robert Bennett, who wasn’t conservative enough in the new Tea Party climate, was rejected at his party’s nominating convention. (While governor, Huntsman actually spoke out against the convention on grounds that it gave “activists” too much power; he proposed primaries instead.) And, of course, the outcome of this tack-right approach was successful for a once-floundering Republican party.
Will Huntsman adapt to this new political reality if he runs in 2012? According to insider accounts, he hasn’t necessarily changed his mind about the inadvisability of a hard-right political message. And CNN reports that, despite the GOP’s rightward shift, Huntsman’s supporters think he has a strong shot in a run for the White House if he maintains his centrist positions:
Republican strategists backing Huntsman—a former Utah governor now serving as U.S. Ambassador to China—say there is room for a “center-right” presidential candidate as the rest of the early GOP field races to the right.
“Everybody is gaming out 2012 as if it will be 2010, and it’s not,” said one Republican laying the groundwork for a Huntsman bid, should he decide to enter the race.
But, even if this analysis of the GOP landscape is accurate, there’s at least one other candidate who will try to occupy a “center-right” niche in the field, and he happens to be another wealthy Mormon with deep Utah roots: Mitt Romney. What does Huntsman bring to the table that the vastly better-known Romney, who has already run for president and has been building a campaign machine for years, does not already bring? Other than a connection to Obama that’s even more tangible and problematic than the similarities between Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts and the president’s national one? That’s hard to say. On the one hand, Huntsman could make Romney’s route to the nomination a lot more difficult by splitting votes in Nevada, an early primary state next door to Utah where Romney did well in 2008. But it seems far more likely that a Huntsman candidacy could help Romney in the long run, because Mitt would no longer be the GOP candidate opponents could point to as being closest to Obama.
Indeed, don’t bet on Huntsman having a successful primary season (if he runs at all). The Iowa caucuses, for instance, which gave Romney fits in 2008, could be a death trap for Huntsman, given Iowa conservatives’ obsessions with the gay marriage issue. And, while Huntsman’s cabal of proto-supporters includes several key operatives from the 2000 and 2008 McCain operations in South Carolina, the ambassador does not look like a natural fit in a state whose two dominant Republican politicians are Tea Party favorites: Jim DeMint and Nikki Haley. They both endorsed Romney in 2008, and Governor Haley got Romney’s endorsement in 2010—but there’s a strong chance they’ll endorse a more conservative candidate in 2012.
Perhaps the Huntsman brain trust, schooled in McCain’s miracle nomination in 2008, is just hoping for another perfect storm in which polls show their guy running better against Obama than his opponents, who are busy knocking each other out of contention. But, given Huntsman’s background and the similarities to Romney, this scenario doesn’t seem plausible. In the end, the Huntsman buzz will probably prove to be just another reflection of growing Republican anxiety over the weakness of its presidential field—another name, like Daniels, Thune, and Barbour, that gives Republican establishment types hope they won’t be stuck with Palin or Huckabee or Gingrich as the nominee.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.