Huntsman’s Problems

Ezra Klein’s weekend question:

In 2008, Republicans nominated a candidate who’d fought the 2003 Bush tax cuts, opposed torture, sponsored the first cap-and-trade bill introduced in the Senate, flirted with joining the Democrats, passed a campaign-finance reform law, led the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and attacked the Christian Right. So why are so many commentators so certain that the heterodoxies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will disqualify them?

Well, I don’t want to actually answer his literal question (“why are so many commentators…”), but I’ve been thinking for a while that I should write again on Huntsman, since I’m definitely one of those who do not believe that Huntsman is a plausible nominee (as regular readers know, I do think that Romney may win).

Why was John McCain a plausible nominee while Huntsman isn’t? I’d say there are two major reasons. One is that McCain has advantages that Huntsman doesn’t have. He brought to the campaign his war hero image, a long history of national visibility, and the experience of running a presidential campaign. Huntsman has none of that — on the positive side, he’s basically a generic former statewide officeholder, full stop. That’s something; it’s basically the threshold qualification. But there’s no real plus beyond that. Utah is neither a large state nor one that proves him capable of winning swing or Democratic voters. He hasn’t been a leader either in his party or of the conservative movement. There’s just no plus there. So compared to McCain, he has similar liabilities (heterodox policy views on multiple issues, a squishy record of party loyalty) without any of McCain’s advantages.

The second part of it is that John McCain won in part because every GOP candidate in 2008 had severe problems with one or more Republican-aligned group. Mike Huckabee was unacceptable on tax grounds; Mitt Romney had problems with anti-abortion groups; Rudy Giuliani…where to start? I suppose I could add Ron Paul, who national security Republicans couldn’t accept. That was exactly why Fred Thompson actually stayed survived for quite some time — he was the only candidate who would have been acceptable to every group and faction, and probably would have won the nomination if he had shown even a bit of a pulse. The problem for Huntsman this year is that Tim Pawlenty is playing the role of Thompson, and Pawlenty actually wants to be president. (I’d also argue that Romney is probably more acceptable to all factions now, having had four years for his new set of positions to set in; as I’ve said before, I don’t think that health care is the same kind of litmus-test issue).

So, while it’s always a good idea to look back at these things from time to time, I just can’t see Huntsman as a plausible nominee. I can’t figure out who — in the actual Republican Party, the one that’s going to select the nominee — picks Huntsman over the other entrants. Now, there’s always a possibility that something unexpected and unpredictable happens; that’s part of politics, too, and, and once can certainly invent a scenario for Huntsman or any of the other implausible nominees. But for now, I don’t see any reason to include him on the small list of those Republicans who have a decent shot at being nominated in 2012.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.