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