Why the Press Loves Jon Huntsman but Ignores Ron Paul

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The media is fascinated by protest candidates who critique their own parties, but it marginalizes those who attack the establishment

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Jon Huntsman won't win the GOP nomination, or so pundits assure us. But he is getting press attention anyway because he decided to start telling his fellow Republicans truths that they don't want to hear. In quick succession, he trumpeted his belief in evolution, said climate change is caused by humans, and insisted that it was essential to raise the debt ceiling. Says James Fallows, "I'm relieved to see someone in the party trying to pull it back from the abyss." (Me too.) Andrew Sullivan goes even farther. "Huntsman has a prophetic role in this campaign if he chooses to adopt it: the truth-teller," he writes. "His chances are so slim, he loses nothing by speaking this candidly."

In a Vogue spread on the former Utah governor, Jacob Weisberg gives the fullest articulation of why so many journalists are covering a campaign that, by their own estimation, almost certainly won't succeed: "Huntsman looks like a protest candidate -- less a figure of the current Republican Zeitgeist than a canny challenger to his party's orthodoxy. But his lack of traction thus far doesn't feel exactly like failure," he writes. "Running from behind brings a freedom to speak one's mind, which can affect the political conversation for the better. Like Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Bruce Babbitt in 1988, and John McCain in 2000, Huntsman seems already to have become a media darling -- a thinking person's candidate whose candor shines a light on the evasions of his rivals, even if it fails to change the outcome of the race." Persuasive, no?

And refreshing, in a way. Rather than obsess over the horse race 15 months before a presidential election, broadcast, Web and print journalists are self-consciously covering a campaign for its substance, even speculating that doing so might have a positive effect on the national conversation. As much as I agree with Sullivan, Fallows, Weisberg, and all the other journalists praising Huntsman for challenging orthodoxies of thought in the GOP, however, I am struck by the very different standards that govern coverage of two other candidates, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.

Neither Huntsman nor Johnson nor Paul is likely to win. All three are challenging orthodoxies of thought in their party. In doing so, all have an opportunity "to affect the political conversation for the better" and to "shine light on the evasions of his rivals, even if it fails to change the outcome of the race."

Here is the difference.

Huntsman is challenging orthodoxies of thought that afflict the GOP alone, and taking positions that reflect the conventional wisdom in the media: evolution is a fact, so is climate change, and the debt ceiling had to be raised. In contrast, Johnson and Paul are challenging orthodoxies of thought that are bi-partisan in nature and implicate much of the political and media establishment.

There is a strong case to be made that their libertarian voices are more vital. The debt ceiling was already raised. Embracing evolution has some political costs in a GOP primary, but matters very little when it comes to the vital policy questions that the next president is going to face. Huntsman nonetheless wins praise for those stances. For questioning America's aggressive, interventionist foreign policy and its failed War on Drugs, policies that are tremendously costly, consequential, and executed in ways that are immoral and demonstrably damaging to our civil liberties, Paul and Johnson aren't given points for speaking uncomfortable truths, shining light on evasions, or affecting the political conversation for the better.

They're ignored, and the excuse given is that they can't win.

In fact, lots of candidates who can't win have garnered more coverage -- Donald Trump, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, for starters. But the Huntsman example shows most clearly how the political press unconsciously reinforces the establishment's orthodoxies of thought. Some "protest candidates" are lauded as truth-tellers virtuously speaking against their political interests, so long as they're critiques reinforce rather than undermine centrist-consensus positions.

Rightly so, in the case of Huntsman.

But a protest candidate that challenges the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, the war on drugs, or civil liberties is ignored, no matter the substantive quality of their arguments on those issues. And if their fans complain, it is pointed out that they don't have a chance of winning. The salutary effect that protest candidates can have on political discourse even if they don't win is completely forgotten. (Occasionally, another dodge is used: that Ron Paul, for example, disqualifies himself from serious coverage due to fringe positions he takes on the Federal Reserve or the gold standard. Suffice it to say that all sorts of candidates are covered as serious contenders despite holding positions more lunatic, as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain attest. Paul's foreign policy critique is serious, coherent and mostly unanswered.)

What's especially interesting is that Gary Johnson's War on Drugs critique and Ron Paul's critique of interventionist foreign policy are shared by many media professionals, who themselves regard mainstream public discourse on those topics to be artificially narrow and irrational, and often regard the positions taken by mainstream politicians on those issues to be more problematic. In deciding how to cover dissenting candidates, however, neither logical coherence nor facts play a part. What is "reasonable" is defined relative to what the establishment dictates.  

During campaign 2008, for example, when Obama, the Democratic Party's standard bearer, was complaining that the Bush Administration was violating on civil liberties, and that various War on Terror excesses ought to be rolled back, the critique was treated seriously by the press. Four years later, as libertarian candidates make some of the same critiques, they're ignored, because many positions formerly labeled as radical by the Democratic mainstream have now been embraced by their party's standard bearer, and mainstream Republicans are just fine with that.

I'm always game to laud truth-telling, so kudos to Huntsman. Evolution exists. Climate change is real. The debt ceiling had to be raised. Preach it. But doesn't it take a lot more political bravery, and bring focus to a lot more evasions and orthodoxies of thought, to insist that we're waging war in too many places, that War on Terror excesses threaten our civil liberties, and that the War on Drugs is a demonstrable failure with tremendous human costs that ought to be ended?

It is telling that John McCain, of all people, is the man who has worn the label "maverick" in our country, despite a career in which almost every position he has taken has been well within the mainstream of political thought. In the twisted thought process of the political press, one's party is always the point of reference, bucking it is the ultimate act of bravery, and the proper object of a "protest candidacy" is encouraging one's party to embrace the bipartisan consensus of the moment.
 
But American discourse is never going to suffer for lack of arguments already advocated by one of the two political parties. If the press is really seeking to air the arguments of protest candidates to shed light on evasions and improve the political conversation, as Weisberg suggests, it should seek out serious critiques that the establishments of neither political party want to acknowledge. So long as it doesn't, no wonder guys like Paul and Johnson have no chance. 


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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