I am sorry to hear the news that Jon Huntsman is dropping out of the 2012 campaign. Sorry for him, sorry for his family and for everyone who has put time, heart, and money into his cause.
One year ago, when my wife and I were headed back for several months in China and I had just heard the first rumblings that Huntsman, then still the serving ambassador in Beijing, might resign to run against Obama, I argued that the reports were hard to believe. The center of his party was moving away from the kind of "modern" positions he represented on evolution, environmentalism, and other social/cultural issues. Moreover, I thought, he would have a hard time running within the party against the very president who had appointed him and with whom he had worked very well.
Obviously those rumblings were correct, my initial skepticism was wrong -- but the obstacles to Huntsman within the party were at least as formidable as they seemed then.
Huntsman has made some obvious missteps along the way, which there is no point in dwelling on now. The question I've long wondered about -- based on my assumption that he wouldn't / couldn't win this time, and that the odds are still in Obama's favor this fall -- is whether having run, and lost, in 2012 will make him better or worse positioned for the run I had always assumed he had in mind, in 2016.
We can't tell anything about politics in real time, but my guess at the moment is that the run will have left him somewhat better off, bruised and rejected as he and his (attractive) family and staff must be feeling now. He has trivially embarrassed himself in a way he'll easily be able to make fun of next time, with his Tourette's-style interjection of Mandarin one-liners at debates and on the stump. This will be the equivalent of Bill Clinton making fun of his embarrassment at the 1988 Democratic convention, where he was mocked and practically hooted off the stage for an interminable speech nominating Michael Dukakis. Huntsman embarrassed himself with another split-second decision he'll have time to reflect upon and learn from. That was when he raised his hand, along with everyone else, in saying that he, too, would reject a budget deal skewed even 10-to-1 for budget cuts rather than tax increases.
But he also had a flash he can build on, when he dressed down Mitt Romney in the last New Hampshire debate for derogating Huntsman's "service to country" as ambassador to China. And he had many more moments when he seemed to be making high-road (if occasionally wacky) appeals than showing anger, bitterness, a willingness to pander, or other traits that will grate and make people dread the sound of his name four years from now. To illustrate the contrast: who, except the Democrats, would truly relish the prospect of Newt 2016? Or Cain?