The Case for (and Against) a Huntsman Moment

By James Fallows

You have to love the Huntsman campaign's response to the Onionesque idea of a debate moderated by Donald Trump: "Lol. We look forward to watching Mitt and Newt suck-up to The Donald with a big bowl of popcorn," according to a spokesman. I also marvel at the increasingly obvious joy with which Huntsman is digging into his longtime homestate rival Romney.

I leave it to "the 1%" to choose among the candidates, by which I mean the Republican electorate in the early primary states. For now, a few reader responses to the claim that Huntsman has managed to run a surprisingly sane campaign.

A reader begs to differ:

Huntsman is only comparatively more sane. I was a supporter of his until two things happened: (1) he started responding to questions about eliminating subsides for companies that ship jobs over seas with a "hey, lets eliminate all subsides!" and (2) he came out for Congressional term limits. As a Floridian, I can think of few things that have done more damage to this state than term limits -- lobbyists pretty much do everything now because, as soon as a lawmaker develops enough institutional knowledge to get something done, the lawmaker are always term limited out.
 
Huntsman may not be batshit crazy like Newt, Cain, or Bachmann but that doesn't man he is a truly serious candidate.

A 20-something, liberal, ex-Obama voter has a more positive view:

After seeing the email from the "dedicated lefty" you received I thought I might share my own liberal take on Huntsman.
 
Obama's 2008 victory was the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in as well drink to (A case of William Penn's Colonial Style Lager...not the best, but certainly the most fitting way to celebrate my home state's going blue.)
 
But those jubilant memories feel like part of another life as I become more disillusioned and disappointed in the President with each passing year.  He has continued to assert executive authority, degrade civil liberties, and maintain overseas occupations (as well as engage in new hostilities in places like Libya, Yemen, and Somalia), to a degree that makes the previous Bush administration appear humble and judicious by comparison.
 
In addition, though through no obvious fault of his own, this President has excited such reactionary passion, and elicited such toxic vitriol from the right to make accomplishing true compromise on almost any issue nearly inconceivable....
 
In the most pragmatic sense, moving away from this utterly conservative status quo, from the host of policies that have exacerbated structural economic inequities, to a set of right of center compromises would be real progress.  Maybe not the kind that liberals like I would hope for, but certainly the kind that is needed, and much more desirable than the repeated legislative gridlock we currently see which is itself a form of far right policy to the degree that it fails to reform the conservative achievements of the past couple decades.
 
If it means sacrificing a President with liberal sentiments but who is heavy handed in his use of executive power and bullish on foreign intervention, in exchange for actual progress toward a better domestic economy with more equitable opportunity for its citizens, I'd gladly make that trade. [JF: Over the years, I have grown skeptical of such 'Not a dime's worth of difference' reasoning, eg in the 2000 campaign. Just FYI.]
 
And in such a scenario Hunstman has so far proven himself to be the ideal replacement (at least from the current field of contenders).  While I have no fantasies about him being a closet Keynsian when it comes to the economy, after all he has demonstrated quite convincingly in both his record and rhetoric that he is a true conservative, he seems interested at least in supporting the kinds of investments that are important if a country is to stay competitive with rising dynamos like China and India.  And while he's for deficit reduction through 100% cuts, and would like to see tax reform cut rates across the board, my instinct is that he's an economic Hayekian without the more destructive virtues of a full blown supply-sider.
 
Most importantly, he has demonstrated a willingness, even while debating his more conservative opponents, to stand firm on dialing down the militaristic side of our foreign policy, something that the current President has show little willingness to do, and instead continuously gives into pressure from his generals and his right flank too, in so many words, "stay the course."  Perhaps I may be incorrect in this assumption, but where as President Obama has escalated the "global war on terror," more than doubled our presence in Afghanistan, and has even lobbied the Iraq government to allow U.S. forces to continue there as well, my intuition is that a President Hunstman would have the resolve to de-escalate in all of these areas.  At the very least I doubt he would do worse. [JF: See caveat above.]...
 
If I were living in one of the earlier primary states I would have signed up already to work on Hunstman's campaign.  Alas, the un-inclusiveness of the primary schedule has me hoping that by early spring, Hunstman will still be in it.

And, finally for now:

As a center-right independent who supported Obama in '08 I've been following Huntsman for awhile.  Short of a major debacle by Romney he has no shot this year, but as the far-right wackos continue to fall, I think he could still make a strong, late run and position himself well for 2016 the same way Romney handled his '08 loss to McCain.  He'll look like a reasonable, responsible conservative who can spend the next four years laying his foundation in Iowa/NH/SC.  And it will give the right and far-right a few more years to get over the whole Mormon thing.

As your liberal reader said though, it sure would be nice to watch Huntsman and Obama have an honest, respectable debate about the responsibility of government.  Would it be a first in American history to have two intelligent, reasonable people as the final two presidential candidates?

New Hampshirites, over to you.

UPDATE. After the jump, more on the "he only looks sane by comparison" front.

Andrew Sprung writes in to say:

In addition to the little matters of endorsing the ruinous Ryan budget and tax-free deficit reduction, there's also this from Huntsman (last debate):
'We missed the Persian spring. The president failed on that front. We go into Libya, where, to my mind, we don't have any definable American interests. We've got Syria now on the horizon, where we do have American interests. It's called Israel. We're a friend and ally. They're a friend and ally. And we need to remind the world what it means to be a friend and ally of the United States.

And we have nuclearization in Iran. Centrifuges spinning. At some point, they're going to have enough in the way of fissile material out of which to make a weapon. That's a certainty.

We had a discussion earlier tonight about sanctions. Everybody commented on sanctions. Sanctions aren't going to work, I hate to break it to you. They're not going to work because the Chinese aren't going to play ball and the Russians aren't going to play ball.

And I believe Iran has already -- the mullahs have already decided they want to go nuclear.

Why?

They have looked at North Korea. They've got a weapon. Nobody touches them. They like [sic] at Libya. Libya gave up their weapon in exchange for friendship with the world. Look where they are.

So I say let's let history be our guide. We saw the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1919. We saw the region transform and make itself into something different. We saw changes in 1947.

I think we do our national interests a disservice by jumping in too soon and taking up sides with people we don't fully understand, Islamist groups, pan-Arab groups.

Our interest in the Middle East is Israel. And our interest is to ensure that Israel -- that Iran does not go nuclear.'
We missed the Persian spring?  Our [sole] interest in the Middle East is Israel? Intervention and overseas adventures are bad, but we'll go to war with Iran (clearly implied) to protect Israel? Huntsman is not quite as dangerous as the rest of the GOP field. But he's not that far behind.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/12/the-case-for-and-against-a-huntsman-moment/249412/