Jon Huntsman’s Conquest of Yankeedom

Jon Huntsman kicked off the most successful week of his presidential candidacy, speaking before a standing room only crowd in the function room of the Plymouth public library, perched on a hill overlooking this tidy northern New Hampshire college town. “Nobody is working the state quite like the Huntsman campaign,” he told the attendees of this, his 117th public campaign event in the Granite State, whose primary he vowed he would win.

Wednesday night, the Suffolk University/7News poll had the former Utah governor surging past Ron Paul and into third place among likely Granite State GOP primary voters. With 13 percent support, Huntsman still trails Newt Gingrich by seven points and frontrunner Mitt Romney by a whopping twenty-five. But he has momentum, particularly among non-Tea Party voters, who gave him 25 percent support, second only to Romney (with 40). Victory in New Hampshire is probably out of reach, but a second or third place finish looks within reach, keeping his campaign alive.

Huntsman has been wise to bet big on New Hampshire, as his particular brand of conservatism is in accord with many longstanding Yankee New England values: support for (frugal, efficient) government, intolerance of corruption, and an expectation that public officials will seek practical solutions to the policy issues before them. He’s no liberal – he’s against gun control and abortion, for school vouchers, guns, and Rep. Paul Ryan’s deficit cutting plan – but nor does he see corporate America as entirely virtuous and the government as an inherently wicked force to be emaciated and drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub.

“There’s a trust deficit that nobody wants to talk about in this country, but it’s very real,” he tells the Plymouth audience, as two of his three video-making daughters look on. “The people of the United States no longer want to trust their institutions of power…and that’s a very precarious and dangerous place for this country to be.”

As president, he says he would end corporate welfare and subsidies, ban “the revolving door that allows members of Congress to file on through to become lobbyists”, reduce banking giants down to a size “where if they screw up, they fail,” and phase out all of the loopholes and deductions in the tax code. (This last one gets rousing applause.) The oil industry’s monopoly – “that one-product distribution network” that’s allegedly squeezing out other energy streams – should be dismantled.

“I say this government of ours isn’t doing the work of the people, and I want to bring back that whole ethos” he concludes. In the absence of sound presidential leadership “you have mischief making on Capitol Hill – people working from their ideological extremes and pointing fingers of blame at everybody else,” he adds. “You have to compromise…That’s how things are done in the real world, and I understand that.”

In these respects, Huntsman’s home state of Utah and northern New England share some cultural common ground. As I’ve pointed out in this space, Mormonism was founded by a New Englander and took shape in Greater New England – a.k.a. Yankeedom – the region from which the vast majority of the founding colonists of Utah came. Its adherents share with the early Puritans a utopian mission to build a more perfect society here on Earth, often through the agency of public institutions. When he was governor, environmentalists credited Huntsman with understanding the need for smart growth planning, the protection of open spaces, and for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change. Teddy Roosevelt “ taught us all to revere our land, to leave a legacy … to the next generation,” he reminded critics in 2008. “I’m also doing a very Republican thing to incentivize and develop technologies that are going to fuel our economy.”

While these positions are giving Huntsman a lift in the Granite State, he still faces an uphill fight. He’s up against a well-financed, Yankee-born Mormon rival who owns a house here and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, of course. But Huntsman also makes slip ups in consistency which he can ill afford.

The biggest applause at the Plymouth event came in response to Huntsman’s promise not “to sign those silly pledges that everybody else on the stage with me has signed” – a reference to the no tax pledges Mr. Norquist has exacted on many Republicans. But here the candidate was on shakier ground, as he had, on stage, joined all the other GOP candidates in raising his hand to reject a hypothetical deal which entailed increasing taxes by one dollar for every ten dollars cut in spending at the debate in Ames, Iowa. Indeed, an attendee in Plymouth challenged Huntsman on this very point. “This is a complicated issue that we have to take time to explain, but when they get to you and they say ‘raise your hand,’ it puts you on the spot – or at least it did with me,” Huntsman responded. “It was my first presidential debate. I said, ‘jeez, I don’t want to raise taxes – I don’t think that’s the way forward, so I’m at least going to speak out against that.’”

This was rather a squishy answer, implying that he perhaps regretted raising his hand, but without actually saying so. I asked his spokespeople if he could clarify this point one way or another. They said they’d get back to me, but a few days later said they weren’t going to respond, suggesting they preferred to remain ambiguous on their commitment to his pledge not to make pledges. Huntsman also recently showed some Romney-like flexibility in regards to his position on climate change, but refused to own up to it. For a candidate seeking to vanquish the G.O.P’s chameleon-like frontrunner, these inconsistencies can do serious damage.

At the end of the event, an audience member asked if Huntsman would consider running as an independent. “I am going to win as a Republican,” he responded. But what if you were to lose the nomination? “Not winning is not an option,” he answered affably before thanking the audience for their time. Only afterward did I realize he’d deftly sidestepped the question.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.