Jon Huntsman will almost certainly not get the Republican nomination for president in 2012. It is not likely he will even be in the race past the Florida primary, tentatively set for January 31, 2012. He has little support among the Republican base, and outside of a very small subset of establishment types, no discernible support among any GOP voters.
But what makes his candidacy interesting is the attention being paid to it by the national media despite his near zero name recognition with Republican voters. One might be excused if they read all the coverage Huntsman has been getting and believed that he was a contender for the nomination. But the coverage of Huntsman is not necessarily about his chances of winning, but rather his political ideology — a center-right philosophy that won him two terms as governor of one of the most conservative states in the union.
Is Huntsman a dying breed of “Big Government” conservative? Or is he an outrider of a movement to make the GOP a more “government friendly” party? In essence, the GOP governors running or talked about for president — Romney, Pawlenty, Daniels, Jindal, Barbour — believe in utilizing conservative principles and applying them creatively to governing in order to make a leaner, sleeker federal government that might not be much smaller than what we have now, but would be better run and more responsible to the voters.
This is the kind of stuff the media likes to chew on when we’re a year or more out from actual voting and the personalities running for president leave much to be desired as far as charisma and excitement.
The excessive media coverage of Huntsman has many on the right believing that this is just one more example of the liberal press trying to force Republicans into choosing a loser like McCain, or at best, a candidate who is not a “true” conservative. The conspiracy theory goes that the press wants the GOP to run a “Democratic-Lite” candidate with little contrast to President Obama, thus giving the voter a choice between the real thing or the imitation — with predictable results.
No doubt, many in the press would like to believe they have that kind of sway over voters. More likely, Huntsman is the flavor of the week, and possesses an originality in his thoughts and on his resume that fascinates political junkies.
Huntsman, like many Republican governors, has gotten a reputation as an executive who gets things done by building consensus, engaging in careful negotiations, and presenting a non-ideological governing style that attracts independents and conservative Democrats. On paper, this makes Huntsman a challenger of some note. The theory is that because the Democrats are not going to primary the president, independents and dissatisfied Democrats will vote in Republican primaries in droves, thus moderating the electorate and diluting the impact of Tea Party types.
Many analysts point to New Hampshire as an example because the Granite State has an open primary where Republican party membership is not required to vote in the GOP contest. The early primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan all feature such open primaries. Might a center-right candidate build momentum with victories in those early states and move on to capture the nomination?
The reality is a little different. Most open primaries are in southern states where Huntsman’s brand of conservatism wouldn’t go over any better with Democrats than it does with the Republican base. Also, there just aren’t enough open primaries for a Republican candidate to win the nomination. Any realistic path to victory for Huntsman would include winning in closed primary states where he scores poorly against other candidates in the field, and where there is actual resentment against his candidacy from the base of the party.
Huntsman may see himself having a realistic shot at the nomination. But beyond what is shaping up to be largely a media-driven fantasy run, there is the notion that what Huntsman represents — his principles, his governing style, and his government-friendly ideas — may outlast his candidacy and herald a rise in national influence for a new breed of GOP governor.
They are chief executives who have built solid reputations for reform by gaining consensus rather than provoking confrontation. They are less the ideologues than idea men, preferring to work with the opposition when feasible and getting high marks from voters for doing so. Their bottom line is getting the job done, not playing “gotcha” games or scoring wins and losses. It may be more a matter of temperament than intelligence or skill, and they place a premium on competent management of the executive.
Some, like Mitch Daniels and Mitt Romney, are technocrats. Others, like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, are more confrontational, but get high marks for their political skills. In the end, getting things done trumps ideology and sometimes even partisanship.
Most GOP governors ended up taking stimulus money, of which about $120 billion was earmarked for the states. It is likely that even without a stim bill, that money would have ended up in the hands of the governors anyway, due to the fiscal crisis in most state budgets. Faced with the choice of ideology or pragmatism. most chose the latter. This did not sit well with many national Republicans who hold it against those GOP governors who put the interests of their states over the the political whims of ideologues.
Huntsman may be the epitome of this new class of governor. Daniel Allott summarized the conservative case for Huntsman in Politico:
Huntsman has a strong pro-life record, both as a chief executive, signing several innovative pro-life laws as Utah’s governor from 2005 to 2009, and as a private citizen, as a father of seven, two adopted. He also supports gun rights and has an unwavering commitment to Israel.
Huntsman signed the largest tax cut in Utah history. During his tenure, the state was named the nation’s “best managed” by the Pew Center on the States, and cited as one of the top three states in which to do business. Forbes labeled Huntsman’s Utah the most “fiscally fit” state for its combination of low debt and taxes and low unemployment.
With approval ratings bumping up against 90% while in office, Huntsman appeared to be conservative enough for residents in Utah — arguably one of the most conservative states in the nation.
But he appears equally unacceptable to those Republicans who run the presidential nominating process — activists and ideologues. His ambassadorship to China, his family’s support for Harry Reid, and his belief in civil unions for gays are all disqualifying factors.
But should they be? Governors are judged successful by a different criteria than congressmen or senators — or ex-governors who have been out of office a while. By necessity, a state’s chief executive embraces the role of government in society, pulling the levers and turning the wheels of power in order to effect a desired result — reform of health care, lower taxes, education reform, etc. What makes many GOP governors stand out today is that there is a large segment of the Republican Party that sees any friendliness shown toward government as suspect. Government is the enemy. There are no redeeming features in the behemoth and everything from Social Security and Medicare to transportation and education spending is either wasteful or unnecessary.
No one is arguing that government isn’t too big, that a strong federalism giving states a larger role in running the country isn’t required, or that reducing the intrusiveness of government in our everyday lives isn’t desirable. But governors like Huntsman were judged successful because they applied conservative principles to the pragmatic operation of governing. Doing more with less, expanding choices, giving more control to counties, cities, towns, and villages — all of this was done with the application of conservative philosophy to the technical management of governing.
Managing the bureaucracy, and standing for competency and “good government,” might not sound exciting. But it has proved successful for several GOP governors and might even get Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty elected president.