Jon Huntsman, a Deeply Flawed Political Role Model

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.

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13 thoughts on “Jon Huntsman, a Deeply Flawed Political Role Model

  1. Slate’s “Huntsman isn’t fluent in Mandarin” article is a bit strange. They merely point out that his grammar isn’t correct, that he sometimes uses weird words, that his vocabulary is limited, and that he doesn’t get social cues entirely right. All of this is extremely common in people speaking non-native languages. It doesn’t mean he isn’t fluent, it just means he doesn’t speak the language perfectly.
    Social cues is particularly difficult for Americans. For example, they call everybody “you”, not differentiating between addressing people formally and informally at all. If you’re an American speaking German or Chinese or Japanese, it’s extremely hard to learn how to do this properly, because you’re learning a concept that simply does not exist in the US at all.
    Of course, Slate’s article ends with examples of Huntsman speaking fluently on a TV interview and in an informal setting, so one has to wonder what exactly the point of the article was, other than to laugh at somebody who speaks a foreign language imperfectly, just like pretty much everybody else who speaks a foreign language.

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  2. luka (#1)

    so one has to wonder what exactly the point of the article was, other than to laugh at somebody who speaks a foreign language imperfectly, just like pretty much everybody else who speaks a foreign language.

    Maybe it has something to do with how not “everybody else who speaks a foreign language” is an ambassador representing one of the most powerful nations in the world to another of the most powerful nations in the world. Someone for whom getting social cues right is his freaking job.
    Also, when you say “Social cues is particularly difficult for Americans,” I’m assuming you mean they’re difficult for the minority of privileged white Americans whose families are not recent immigrants, because there are plenty of Americans who are extremely sensitive to social cues owing to how their conformity or lack of it affects how often they’re denied their status as Americans by those they interact with.

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  3. Huntsman’s Mandarin may well have been more fluent in the 1980’s. But it is hard to maintain that fluency if you do not practice frequently.

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  4. Maybe it has something to do with how not “everybody else who speaks a foreign language” is an ambassador representing one of the most powerful nations in the world to another of the most powerful nations in the world.

    You’re probably an American, so you’re used to foreign diplomats speaking your language fluently, and understanding even minor details of your society well. That’s not usually the case in other countries, though.

    Also, when you say “Social cues is particularly difficult for Americans,” I’m assuming you mean they’re difficult for the minority of privileged white Americans whose families are not recent immigrants

    This applies to all Americans who grew up in the US. They’re used to simply addressing each other as “you”, for example. Yep, there are exceptions, e.g. where people in lower “castes” have to address members of higher castes as “sir”, but these don’t apply to most Americans, recent immigrants or not.
    Anyway, my main point is this: he’s not lying when he says that he’s fluent in Mandarin, and the article actually admits that towards the end.

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  5. Gosh.
    I didn’t realize that planning a run for the Presidency necessarily involved a “plot” against the President. Do we have enough jail cells available, or should we just convert to a monarchy?
    Or that it meant that a government official could not be expected to uphold one’s responsibility as a representative of one’s country and President, and do the job for which one was being paid to the best of one’s ability as soon as they started thinking that maybe they themselves would run for President. I guess that rules out all active Congresspeople and State Governors, state auditors, tax collectors, any official working in the Executive Department from plotting planning any run against any elected official with a higher pay grade. Good to know.

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  6. gingerbaker, running against the president while representing that exact same president to others does seem to present a conflict of interest.
    But yea, I agree that to resolve that conflict of interest properly you’d have to do a lot more than just have huntsman not take the job. I don’t think it would be practical to resign from his position the moment he decides to run for president. I’m not exactly sure if the tradeoff would necessarily be worth it.

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    • “gingerbaker, running against the president while representing that exact same president to others does seem to present a conflict of interest.”
      Sorry – I don’t see a conflict of interest, which should be, as a governmental official, to serve the best interests of the American public. As long as he does his job as rep to China properly, he has the same right as anyone else to decide to run for President.
      And the idea that a sitting President would expect his underlings to be more loyal to his reelection chances than to the Constitution of the U.S. is completely repugnant to me.

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  7. 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.

    A different one reminds the first one that this merely indicated Huntsman is not as crazy as the norm for the party with which he has freely chosen to associate himself. If a person (Huntsman, for example) looks around the vehicle and notices that everyone he can see is wearing large shoes and a red rubber nose, then that person may be riding in the clown car. That person might then casually put his hand to his face, just to check his own nose.

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  8. luka (#4)

    You’re probably an American, so you’re used to foreign diplomats speaking your language fluently, and understanding even minor details of your society well. That’s not usually the case in other countries, though.

    Do you understand that the point is that ambassadors are not in the same position as “everybody else” and thus it’s fair to criticize them for having only average fluency in a language, even if America’s disregard for international relations means we regularly send ambassadors of dubious fluency to represent us in other countries?

    This applies to all Americans who grew up in the US.

    Well, I’m talking about first and second generation immigrants, as well as marginalized groups, both ethnic and religious. You have to do some serious special pleading to think that such people are not competent in interpreting and responding to different sets of social cues. (Or, at least, to think that they’re significantly less competent than people of other countries.)
    The main reason your generalization is false—and the crux of my second point—is that most Americans grow up learning multiple sets of social cues. Even African-Americans who can trace their family’s existence in America back to the time of slavery learn multiple sets in order to navigate a racist society with minimum harm to themselves. Those social cues won’t, of course, be the exact same as those of another country, but that limitation is universal. For instance, knowing the intricacies of honorific language doesn’t magically enable a Japanese person to understand sarcasm; that still has to be learned.

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  9. Now put aside whether you feel like China is our “strategic adversary,” and consider Erickson’s point.

    Considered it. This would seem to disqualify just about any politician actively in office from seeking the presidency. For example, there has been the discussion (and even some evidence) of whether or not Republicans in congress are opposed to some policies simply because a Democrat occupies the presidency. So that would have also disqualified Bachmann for sure. I’d even suggest this have disqualified Perry.
    So, no, I’m not really buying it. Actually, I think that this idea only has some sway because of what congress has been doing. But, on that note, where is the evidence Huntsman was trying to plot against the President? There is a lot of “could have” here. Really, any one “could have” plotted against the President, regardless of their intents to run for the office themselves. Or they even “could have” plotted against the President to run for some other office. The slope is slippery when it’s not evidence based.

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  10. Normally I am on the liberal side of things, but this one doesn’t make sense to me.
    Hunstman was already a Republican when Obama appointed him, so if it was an issue of trust Huntsman was already on ‘the other side’.
    And he wasn’t really representing the president in China, but America’s interests.

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  11. Yeah, this seems like mighty weak tea to me. Better criticisms of Huntsman would include his record on abortion. And of course his fiscal policies, but then again I guess that’s the whole point, is that it’s a Republican who is still definitely conservative, but isn’t totally intransigent on certain social issues, or on out-and-out reality-denial.
    Probably liberals like me are the wrong people to be choosing the next face of the GOP anyway, heh…

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