Jon Huntsman ran what turned out to be a pretty pathetic campaign for president in the 2012 cycle. Running to capture the nomination of a party that at several times was in the thrall of figures like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum, he was already fighting an uphill battle to become acceptable to the GOP’s Bronze Age base. It didn’t help matters that he was weak in debates and generally mush-mouthed in interviews.
One is tempted to give him a lot of credit, though, for the fact that he was obviously so willing to stand up to much of the insanity to which the other candidates were pandering. He expressed support for science and acceptance of evolution and climate change, he chastised his fellow candidates for being immovable in their anti-tax zealotry, and there were other examples. I am not so quick, however, to shower him with praise.
With the GOP in something of a frazzled state following their substantive defeat in November, there is a lot of noise about the party finally, finally, no really this time, moderating itself to be more acceptable to a general national electorate. And that noise often leads to chatter about how Huntsman is the model for the modern, reformed GOP. Conservative, yes, and quite, but also not heartless, not backward, and not unmoored from reality. He recently came out for gay marriage in the pages of The American Conservative, and a new Daily Beast piece makes the case that the Republican Party may be inching toward a kind of Huntsmanization.
On paper, I’m okay with all of this. I’d much rather have a political debate that had two parties that, though disagreeing about solutions, were at least in agreement about what is and is not true, what is and is not fact, and what is and is not discrimination. So a Hunstman-like GOP? Fine, you can’t do much worse than what we’ve already got, at least before Ted Cruz gathers a private army to invade Vermont.
But I think the Beltway media and political establishment are wrong to lionize Huntsman the man. I think there is, underlying his moderate-ish, sane-ish policy branding, a very real and disqualifying character flaw.
And, forgive me, but I’m going to allow the loathsome Erick Erickson to introduce my point. Erickson wrote in 2011:
The reason I will never, ever support Jon Huntman is simple: While serving as the United States Ambassador to China, our greatest strategic adversary, Jon Huntsman began plotting to run against the President of the United States. This calls into question his loyalty not just to the President of the United States, but also his loyalty to his country over his own naked ambition.
It does not matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Party is beside the point here. When the President of the United States sends you off to be Ambassador to our greatest strategic adversary in the world, you don’t sit around contemplating running against the very same President you serve. It begs the question of did you fully carry out your duties as Ambassador or let a few things slip along the way hoping to damage the President? Likewise, it begs the question of whether our relations with China have suffered because the President felt like he could not trust his own Ambassador?
Now put aside whether you feel like China is our “strategic adversary,” and consider Erickson’s point. I don’t care whether Obama’s motivation for appointing Huntsman as his China ambassador was a hedge against having to face him in 2012. Huntsman accepted the job, the job of representing the United States, and more specifically this president in China. And there’s little doubt that while he was there, he was also getting ready to do political battle with that president. If that’s you’re thinking, you don’t take that job.
I understand realpolitick. I understand that a shot at the presidency is the rarest of opportunities, and as Obama himself shows, you have to move with speed and blind determination if you ever hope to seize that opportunity. I think it’s pretty clear Huntsman won’t have another realistic shot. He perceived (correctly) that 2012 would be it for him, and he acted on it. I get it.
But then, you don’t take the job of being the embodiment of a president’s policy in a foreign country when you’re simultaneously plotting to politically undermine him. Erickson is right: Huntsman should have satisfied his ambition at the expense of something other than his commitment to the United States.
This is not the only example. Last year, it was revealed that Huntsman was also vastly overstating his fluency in Mandarin. Now, no one really thinks that one’s ability to speak a foreign language is the lynchpin to a successful presidency, but it speaks to Hunstman’s character. He doesn’t speak Mandarin very well, but still he claimed over and over that he does, touting is as an example of his worldliness and qualifications, and didn’t think anyone would notice when he spoke it in public and came out with nonsense. Jon, just because you don’t speak it well, doesn’t mean that no one else does.
It’s a small thing, but I think it says something about his overall character. He’s a clumsy national politician, no doubt (though obviously did rather well in Utah), but he also seems weak of integrity.
So if the GOP is moving toward Huntsman on policy and acceptance of reality (something about which I am deeply, deeply skeptical), that’s fine. But in terms of Huntsman the man, they should find another role model.