What Was the Huntsman Campaign's Problem?

It was designed for a charismatic Obama-type, not the moderate and modulated former diplomat from Utah.


"I'm tremendously bullish on the governor's chances should he run," a senior adviser to Jon Huntsman's political apparatus-to-be told me in May. At the time, the former American ambassador to China's biological rhythms were still out of sync from his 10,000 mile trip stateside from Beijing and the campaign he would go on to run -- and, on Monday, end -- could fairly be described as still in utero.

But though he was then largely an unknown to a national audience, Huntsman's reputation as something less than a doctrinaire conservative was already cemented in the political zeitgeist. After all, he had just returned from a diplomatic post under President Barack Obama, and as a governor of Utah he endorsed civil unions and reciprocal benefits for gays and lesbians. But a Massachusetts moderate, he was not: the Utahn had outlawed second-trimester abortions, championed an effective flat tax and held a hunting permit for critters larger than small varmints. As a former aide to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who had just forsworn his own White House bid, I was sold.

Then as now it appeared Mitt Romney would win his the Republican Party's presidential nod. But briefly, it seemed plausible that a young governor willing to break partisan ranks stood a chance -- however remote -- of denying Romney a coronation.

The campaign-in-waiting's mythology held that Huntsman's nuanced conservatism would earn the trilingual politician a winning foothold among Republicans in idiosyncratic New Hampshire.

Instead, Huntsman bested rivals Romney and Ron Paul only among New Hampshire Democrats and those opposed to the Tea Party, and his eminently conservative record got lost in translation, thanks to a few moderate stances that commanded immoderate attention. By the campaign's end, Huntsman had positioned himself not as a conservative with a handful of heterodox positions, but rather as a radical moderate who on occasion had shown an uncharacteristic conservative bent.

Yet the gusto with which Huntsman pronounced his political transgressions should win only a small measure of the blame for the campaign's derailment.

The real problem was that the campaign had been choreographed without the candidate. Aides to the now-defunct Huntsman campaign pledged even before the principal, hoping a robust organization might compel the still-jet lagged ambassador to take the plunge against his former boss.

The grand pageantry and promise of Huntsman's June launch -- staged in the shadow of Lady Liberty, as campaign surrogates were trained to say -- dwarfed the subdued, conciliatory tone the candidate struck.

In truth, the power of personality that once vaulted Obama from primary underdog to president factored greatly into the Huntsman calculus.

The contours of Huntsman's bid were drawn as though he was the Republican counter to Obama. And in the most shallow of senses, he was: In him was a young, telegenic pol sporting the fiscally conservative credentials of Paul Ryan and the globetrotting of Henry Kissinger.

But whereas the president quickened the progressive pulse with saber rattling on Republican union-busting or the dissolution of entitlements, Huntsman refused to likewise rally activists of his party. Some might say he had a clinical aversion to pandering.

Even as Huntsman rose to double digits in opinion surveys, slogging through the endless coffee klatches of the Granite State, his sober diplomacy proved savorless to red meat-hungry GOPers.

All the deeply conservative policy prescriptions Huntsman floated throughout the campaign were camouflaged by his ubiquitous pledges for pragmatism. His unqualified embrace of the Ryan budget, still unmatched today, drew as much attention from primary voters as his jobs proposal, which earned so much praise from legacy conservative outlets.

Huntsman's exit from the nominating contest leaves me without a job, but more pressing it leaves Republicans without a statesman earnestly and pragmatically consumed with fixing what ails America.

Image credit: REUTERS/Adam Hunger