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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Mecha-Obama and Micro-Payments

Technology guru-turned-Cassandra, Jaron Lanier, thinks he knows why Obama won reelection. In a recent interview with UK’s Spectator, he said:

If you have the biggest computer and the biggest data, you can calculate how to target people with a political message, and have almost a guaranteed deterministic level of success. Politics then becomes about who has the biggest computer instead of what the agenda is. The way Obama won the last US election was by having the best computer strategy. That method of winning an election works, but if that is to be the future of politics, it will no longer have meaning. The path we are on is not compatible with democracy.

It is also not compatible with reality. Obama didn’t win because he was 3D-printed into a Mecha-Candidate based on a vote-maximizing algorithm. He won because his positions line up with a majority of the electorate’s, because he is more likable than his opponent, and because his opponent espoused views that many people found extreme. The Obama campaign’s tech operation surely aided his quest, and would have mitigated a razor-thin race by goosing turnout, and it will no doubt be of use down the line, but he won because the voters liked him best.

Now, Lanier’s horror scenario is, of course, highly undesirable and is certainly possible in the future. Indeed, had he not had to weather a Republican primary, Romney might well have been this computer-generated candidate. But that’s not what happened in 2012, and it’s silly to say so. Confirmation bias, anyone?

All that said, Lanier also has a neat idea about all that data that Obama, Romney, as well as Google, Amazon, and every other company and entity in the world is harvesting about you, and using for all manner of purposes, be it advertising, crowdsourcing, or what have you. You should get paid for it:

. . . this data actually comes from a large number of people who have been anonymized and disenfranchised. If there was proper counting of where the data came from we would see that even in this highly advanced hypothetical automated loom, there would be real people who make the data possible to create a design.

And you are suggesting that they get paid, right?

Yes. If there were micro payments made to the people who fed the big data . . . then there would still be an economy.  It’s not as if the people have disappeared from the economy, it’s just that we pretend they don’t exist.

Well I’m all for that. It’s true, we are all, every day, contributing mostly-unwittingly to a vast number of companies’ knowledge of the world, of markets, of trends, of locations, etc. We are accidentally providing enormous value moment by moment, and other than in our use of some free electronic services, we get nothing in return.

If Lanier could dial back the paranoia, he might make some sense to people.

Previous posts of mine reacting to Lanier:

Toby (3 Years Old) Assesses the 2012 Presidential Race

My three-year-old boy Toby and I were talking about presidential politics in the car this morning, like we do. (While his baby sister Phoebe said, “RaaaUUUuUuurrrrRRrgh.”) We were looking back at the 2012 election, and Toby has drawn some interesting conclusions.
He often asks whether such-and-such a politician “did a good job,” and this time, after asking about Paul Ryan (I said, no, Paul Ryan did not do a good job), he had this to say:

Paul Ryan is a big guy who used to knock Mitt Romney down.

I asked Toby to elaborate on what he meant by this. He said:

Paul Ryan is a big guy who used to gink other people and hit other people with his long arms.

I’m not certain what “gink” means, but I suspect it’s a kind of knocking about.

Anyway, I then asked Toby what he thought of the winning ticket for 2012, and he told me:

Barack Obama is the president but Joe Biden is the big guy and he doesn’t need to hit everybody.

No he doesn’t, Toby. You’re absolutely right.

Romney Didn’t Want to Be President? Don’t Believe It.

The Boston Globe has a really good behind-the-scenes look at what went wrong for the Romney campaign, including the still-baffling decision to put a Clint Eastwood improvisational sketch in a prime time convention spot in lieu of a very compelling biography video. But what really caught my eye is this assertion from Romney's son Tagg:

More than being reticent, Romney was at first far from sold on a second presidential run. Haunted by his 2008 loss, he initially told his family he would not do it. While candidates often try to portray themselves as reluctant, Tagg insisted his father’s stance was genuine.

“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to . . . run,” said Tagg, who worked with his mother, Ann, to persuade his father to seek the presidency. “If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside. . .”

I call bullshit.

This is a nice way to excuse a big loss like the one Romney suffered by saying, well, he didn't really want to be president anyway. It implies that had he really, really wanted it, you know, with sugar on top, then he'd have won.

But more to the point, it's an absurd notion, an extraordinary claim that I just cannot possibly accept just on this one man's word.

To run for president, and to do so at the level Romney achieved — faring strongly in 2008 and coming close to victory in 2012 — requires, I believe, a lust for power, a raw desire for the office that we mere mortals can't quite fathom. This doesn't mean that the candidate in question is evil or does not have honorable intentions for what they will do once in office, but being even a moderately successful presidential candidate requires a kind of insatiable need to be president that borders on the psychopathic. And I include Barack Obama in this — he's proven that, for all his faults and tendencies toward caution, he is a fierce and ruthless candidate.

To be a strong presidential candidate, let alone president, one has almost no choice but to be so.

(I always carve out an exception here for Eisenhower. I think the rule is that if you save the world from Hitler, you get to be president no matter what you're like.)

A while back I made the case that candidates who saunter into presidential races a little late into the process are themselves doomed from the start (thinking primarily of folks like Rick Perry, Fred Thompson, and Wes Clark) because the very fact of their late start is a signal that they didn't have the required drive to begin with. If they had, they'd have had their shit together to take on such a monumental task well in advance of anyone even knowing they were even thinking about it.

So I think that Tagg is either bullshitting the press, or he's being bullshitted by his parents. It's a benign bullshitting, I'll grant. Like I said, it's a comforting way to spin a soul-crushing loss. But you don't get to be the presidential nominee of a major party (and almost get there in a previous election) without really, really fucking wanting it.

Unless, I guess, you believe that God has commanded you. And that's almost the same thing.

Voting is Apparently All the Rage in Small-Town Maine

Jessica and I voted first thing in the morning today, and I decided to bring Toby along. He’s not even three, of course, and he was bored and a little cranky most of the time (I had forbidden him Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts, and that about severed our familial bonds), but I thought it was important for him to see his parents taking this democracy thing seriously.

Plus, he loves saying, “You know what? JOE BIDEN!” So this was a chance for him to see us vote for him.

Here are the pictures I quickly took of our polling place at the community center in Saco, Maine.

Because I was driving, I did not get what would have been the far more remarkable pictures of the cars backed up for blocks, filled with folks coming to vote before going to work. It was much more than I expected, especially when you consider that Maine is not a swing state this year, our U.S. Senate race to replace Olympia Snowe is a foregone conclusion (you could pretty much call him Senator-Elect Angus King as soon as he announced), and of course, our U.S. House race for our district was also without drama, with our popular Democratic incumbent.

Even given all that, all those people showed up. Maybe we’ll see more today across the country than is commonly assumed.

And in Toby’s own words, “That was good voting!”

Not Loyal Enough

Steve Coll compares Chris Christie’s keynote speech to Obama’s in 2004, and finds Christie sadly wanting.

Obama came to Boston as an unknown and left as a rising star. Christie came to Tampa as a rising star and obviously hoped to acquire Obama-like momentum as the Republican Party’s “truth teller,” a more salable alternative in competitive “purple” states than Paul Ryan will be in the next election, if Romney loses this one. (Christie even wore a purple tie.) …

More interesting than the hard truths Christie purported to deliver from the podium in Tampa were the truths he revealed implicitly: that he is unoriginal, divisive, and not loyal enough to be worthy of the platform Romney gave him.

In a way, this piece reminds me of the only thing I think I’ll ever agree with RedState’s Erick Erickson about, when he called out Jon Huntsman for being untrustworthy. His reasoning was that he proved his disloyalty as a person and as a representative of the United States when he was obviously planning to set himself to challenge the president who had appointed him to his ambassadorship; a president who, one presumes, was relying on him to do that job without having to worry about being undermined by an electoral opponent.

This is similar, in that it calls out Christie for failing to do the job to which he was appointed, and instead using it as a platform for his own advancement. The logic goes, I think, that if you can’t do what you’re supposed to do here, of all places, and you look to overshadow and even undermine the guy who put you where you are (in that moment a least), why on Earth should you be seen as worthy of the office you’re blatantly gunning for?