PJ Media

Jonny, We Hardly Knew Ye'

When the end finally arrived, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if Jon Huntsman had broken out a quote from Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings and said, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” The former Utah governor had heard the clarion call to service and boldly set sail across the mighty Pacific, returning home from China to rescue the Republican Party from itself.

And what did he get for his trouble? The field of GOP hopefuls organized a magnificent holiday feast before the battle began, and Jon Huntsman was shown to a folding chair at the kid’s table. Following his somewhat disappointing third place finish in New Hampshire, he curiously described the result as a “ticket to ride” to South Carolina. But after only a handful of days, he apparently determined that all of the available hotel rooms in the Palmetto State were booked solid and will now presumably head home with his tail tucked firmly between his legs. (This comes after announcing that he will endorse Mitt Romney, of course, whom he recently described as being unelectable.)

So how did this campaign, adored by the media and once so full of hope and promise, wind up running aground worse than Costa Concordia? Pundits have been fielding theories since the moment the news broke. Reid Wilson, writing at the National Journal, proclaimed that Huntsman “was the answer to a call for moderation and pragmatism that no one in the Republican Party ever made.”

But his message was out of step with a Republican base driven by Tea Party populism and anger with the political status quo almost from the moment he began running. If Huntsman didn’t represent that status quo, voters certainly didn’t see their anger reflected in his calm demeanor. …

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey took a completely different approach:

Jon Huntsman wasn’t a “pragmatic centrist who could reach out to Democrats.”  He governed in Utah as a conservative in a state controlled by the GOP, but talked like a centrist who despised conservatives.  Huntsman’s expensive and embarrassing flop really isn’t much more complicated than that.

I think the answer is a bit more diffuse than either of those explanations, but Reid comes a bit closer to the mark. The fact that Huntsman boasted a solid conservative record on the issues was obvious to those who cared to look closely, and this was repeatedly pointed out by right-leaning observers ranging from Erick Erickson to Joe Scarborough. In fact, were the job application process for the GOP nomination handled like an employment search through a headhunter’s office (without all the messiness of the candidates actually having to talk to us), Huntsman’s resume would likely have been sorted well near the top.

Unfortunately, he did talk… almost endlessly. The results of that gabfest were readily apparent; the conservative base didn’t like what they were hearing and stayed away in droves. But for us to accept Ed’s premise that Huntsman spoke as if he “despised conservatives” requires somewhat more of a leap than I’m willing to make. In what specific way was he showing disdain? Was it that he was not willing to reject the theory of evolution out of hand? (A position which is held by barely one quarter of the population, by the way.) Was it his climate change apostasy? For us to accept that this demonstrates some insulting dismissal in whole cloth of conservatism, it would mean that contested issues are “settled science” (which I’m guessing sounds familiar) and there is no room for debate inside the GOP tent on the fine points.

Wilson’s explanation may wind up being more palatable, but choosing the incendiary word “anger” tends to turn a value judgment into an accusation. I don’t accept that conservative voters are looking for someone to scream incoherently and hurl their own feces at the tourists. What they are shopping for is a candidate who will be forceful in their denunciation of the current administration, both on specific policy points and general values judgments. In short, they’re looking for a warrior who will fight the battle on every front and do so loudly and aggressively.

Huntsman was simply never that man. He not only committed the cardinal sin of taking a job working for Barack Obama (a flaw in the eyes of many, whether they choose to admit it in public or not) but also described the president in positive terms at times. Further, there is still a fairly virulent rejection of all things RINO running around the base, and while Huntsman was never actually a moderate while governing Utah, he played one on TV, as some are wont to say.

Huntsman’s strategy from the beginning, it seemed, was to set himself up as a candidate who wouldn’t scare away the moderates and independents with white hot conservative rhetoric, positioning himself for a general election victory. Unfortunately, as Wilson implies, that doesn’t work when attempting to summon up the legions of the faithful required to make it past the nominating process.

Farewell, Jon Huntsman. We hardly knew ye’.  And looking at the final set of polling data prior to his departure, “hardly” works out to be roughly 5%.