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.)