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The Rethinking Man’s Candidate

Meet Jon Huntsman

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Covering political campaigns can be a dull, remorseless duty, but at least the reporters who gathered in Liberty State Park, New Jersey, on June 21 to see Jon Huntsman announce his presidential candidacy have this compensation: Someday they’ll be able to chuck their grandchildren under the chin and tell them, “Yes, kids, I was there when the Huntsman campaign peaked.”

Huntsman Picture

Thomas Fluharty

The setting for the announcement was meant to be highly inspiring. A small, flag-bedecked stage had been built at the tip of a vast lawn jutting out into the Hudson River. The skyline of lower Manhattan and, more symbolically, the Statue of Liberty rose just beyond, through a scrim of early morning haze. By my rough estimation, newsfolk outnumbered normal people, who in turn narrowly outnumbered the political consultants, low-level politicians, and other hangers-on that always attend the launch of a presidential campaign, when the breezes still carry the springtime scent of fresh, unspent money. 

Among the campaign’s consultants was the adman Fred Davis, a veteran of various John McCain campaigns who most recently gained fame for the mysterious “demon sheep” ad he produced for the California senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina last year. (The ad featured a pasture full of sheep and a guy in a sheep’s costume and was, of course, catnip to bored-stiff reporters but less appealing to voters, whose sensibilities haven’t yet evolved into postmodernism, even in California.) I see that the 2012 Political Reporter’s Stylebook requires that upon first reference Davis must be called “unconventional,” although “maverick” is allowed as a substitute under some circumstances. True to form, the scene Davis staged for Huntsman’s announcement was unconventional in the conventional manner. 

The event had the feel of an unsubtle satire dreamed up by some snotty 1970s aging-hippie movie director—Robert Altman, say—to prove that political candidates are just pretty-boy airheads engaged in a show-biz sham. In addition to the lifted lamp of Lady Liberty and the overdone backdrop, there was the handsome candidate and his excellent hair, tossed Kennedily by a gentle wind off the river. There was the lovely wife wreathed in smiles, accompanied by a raft of offspring who looked as if Madame Tussaud’s “Brady Bunch” exhibit had sprung wondrously to life.

Large speakers played a boneless soundtrack of soft New Age rock, part Kenny G, part early 1980s porno. On a video screen across from the stage, solitary words shimmered in and out of focus against a western landscape: Vitality. Comfort. Home. Tough. Calm. (You’re getting sleepy, sleepy .  .  .  ) A recorded voice familiar from a dozen car commercials read the words as they appeared. Then another voice directed everyone’s attention to a point 100 yards away, across the endless lawn. The cameras turned. And there they were: a line of grinning Huntsmans, lined up and holding hands. At a cue from an inconspicuous advance man, the family began walking, slowly, slowly, hand in hand across the lawn. All that stood between them and the massed rank of cameras was a towering monument in the center of the field, dedicated to the veterans who had liberated the death camps in World War Two. 

The music thrummed. The Huntsman flotilla drew closer still, at the pace of an old Clairol commercial. And just as the little voice inside everyone’s head was silently screaming, “Don’t do it, please don’t don’t don’t don’t do it,” they did it: The entire family paused in front of the statue and gazed heavenward, some with their arms around each other, some bowing their heads. And then, toeing a line of masking tape the advance men had laid down for them just out of sight, they resumed their march toward the stage, into the bright dawn of America’s tomorrow. It took forever. 

When at last he reached the podium, Huntsman began his speech with brief bio notes: He’s been governor of Utah, ambassador to China and Singapore, a businessman, and now, as of this minute, a presidential candidate. He then let out a series of boldly phrased, unvarnished assertions that no one in his right mind would disagree with. “What we now need,” he said, is “leadership that knows we need more than hope, leadership that knows we need answers.” “We must make the hard decisions.” “We can and will own the future.” The future holds challenges, sure, but also possibilities. “We’re choosing whether we are to be yesterday’s story or tomorrow’s.” It’s time to choose. “Now it’s our turn.”

And: “Our problems are no bigger than our opportunities.”

Mr. Altman? Is that you?

If the announcement speech had a notable theme, it was that Huntsman would run a campaign based on civility. “We will conduct this campaign on the high road,” he said, drawing a stark contrast with those candidates who publicly vow to conduct their campaigns on the low road. With its own advertised civility at its core, Huntsman’s campaign will thus be a campaign about itself, in the Obamian fashion.

It’s not an exciting theme, but Huntsman is not an exciting candidate, by both nature and design. Consultants like Davis have tried hard to add drama and color to his—forgive the term—narrative, in an act of myth-building. Unfortunately for them and him, he is not a man who has lived a dramatic life. He grew up the son of a wealthy businessman and his homemaker wife in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. He married early and once. He went to the Wharton school. He’s a Mormon. He made his millions working in the company his father built.

But reporters writing Huntsman profiles now know to include a handful of details that his campaign hopes will prove diverting. This isn’t just any Mormon! He rides Harleys and likes to eat at greasy spoon restaurants. He attends motocross events and listens to the Foo Fighters with sincere enthusiasm. He dropped out of high school, though he quickly earned his GED, and played keyboards in a rock band that specialized in playing REO Speedwagon songs (some colorful facts you’d think the handlers would want to keep quiet). He became fluent in Mandarin Chinese after spending two years on a Mormon mission in Taiwan as a young man. Before college he worked as a dishwasher and a busboy at Marie Callender’s, where he met his wife Mary Kaye. Two of the Huntsmans’ seven children are adopted, one from China and one from India.

Each of these bits of color has been duly noted in the press stories that have launched his campaign. The political tip sheet Politico even published an article called “Jon Huntsman, the Rock ’n’ Roll Years,” though a more accurate headline would probably say “the Rock ’n’ Roll Months.” Thanks to the careful mythmaking of Davis and others, you are much more likely to read that Huntsman worked as a fast-food drudge (worldly experience) than that he made Eagle Scout (typical Mormon). Anyone who still holds to the notion of a cynical press corps will have to dodge the puffers political reporters have lobbed at Huntsman in the months leading up to his announcement. 

“He just might be the most formidable standard-bearer the Republicans could field against Obama,” said New York magazine, without evidence. “The GOP’s Cool Uncle,” said the Atlantic (Harley, rock band). “Cerebral, cautious, civil, and, yes, cool,” said Newsweek (Harley, good looks). “Cool-and-cerebral,” said Time. If he had a deficiency, according to press reports, it’s that he’s too good for his own good. “Is there room for such civility on the national stage?” Time wondered.

This last point helps show why the mainstream press has found Huntsman so attractive. He’s a throwback to a golden era—that moment when the world was young, in late 2008 and early 2009. Obama had been elected and the Republican party had been repudiated. The consensus among the press was that the debacle of 2008 would require a great rethinking on the part of Republicans, and many Republicans agreed. So dire was the party’s condition that many Republican chin-pullers resorted to hyphens, calling themselves “progressive-conservatives” or “reform-minded Republicans,” anything but plain conservative Republican. Having just been reelected in Utah with a 58-point margin of victory even as other Republicans fell all around him, Huntsman was squarely with the rethinkers. It was back to the old drawing board, Huntsman said at the time. He called for “a broad discussion about the future of the party.” Huntsman is the rethinking man’s candidate.

“It’s like the world began in November,” he said in early 2009. “The old ethos world view—all that’s been decimated.” 

The euphemisms here require translation: The “old ethos world view” meant conservative positions on various questions, and “rethinking” meant abandoning the conservative positions and adopting positions more congenial to Democrats, especially on immigration reform, global warming, environmental regulation, and gay marriage, to “broaden the party’s base.” In a series of interviews Huntsman compared the 2008 Republican party to the Tories of the 1990s, a “very narrow party of angry people.” He said the party was “anti-science.” To the New Republic magazine he lamented that the party did not attract more people “who are the intelligentsia.” He criticized congressional Republicans for criticizing President Obama’s stimulus bill. The party needed to “come at it in a different way” and forsake its “empty words.” In place of the old empty words, Huntsman had low-cal substitutes of his own: “We need visionary—I hate the word proactive—but proactive leadership that has a sense of boldness based on real ideas that put the country first as opposed to party.”

Lucky for Republicans, the “broad discussion about the future of our party” never took place. Instead, Obama’s liberalism gave them a chance to position themselves as unhyphenated conservatives, the kind that existed before rethinking. (It’s good to remember that the Bush-era party the rethinkers wanted to rethink was itself a product of rethinking, a hyphenated conservatism called “big-government conservatism.”) In 2010 Republicans were swept back to power without moving a muscle, ideologically, and the issues that Huntsman wanted to place at the top of the party’s agenda, education and the environment, have fallen low on the list of voters’ concerns, as they always will when times are rough. Matt Bai in the New York Times compared Huntsman the 2011 presidential candidate to a cave man transplanted from his own time to ours. From early 2009 to 2011 is hardly a geological epoch, but it’s true—to switch metaphors—that as 2012 approaches the rethinking man’s candidate looks like last year’s model.

Huntsman seems to have missed something big in the landslides of 2010. The reason for his Rip Van Winkle aura, to use still another metaphor, is that Huntsman spent most of the Obama administration out of the country. Just as Huntsman was strapping on his rethinking cap, in the spring of 2009, President Obama appointed him ambassador to China, an offer he accepted without failing to note that this act of bipartisanship was just the kind of thing the American people hungered for from their leaders. He hand wrote a polite thank you note to President Obama, calling him a “remarkable leader”—which is not the kind of thing the Republican people hunger for from their presidential candidates. 

Huntsman was only a few months into his second term as governor when Obama chose him for China. Back home his approval rating stood at 80 percent. But he had already begun to tire of Utah, at least politically. 

“As soon as he was reelected, he couldn’t get out of here fast enough,” says Paul Rolly, a veteran political reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. “He’d just lost interest.” After his reelection, Rolly says, Huntsman declined to attend a single Lincoln Day dinner held by Utah Republicans. 

Others noticed a change, too. Dave Clark served as speaker of the Utah House of Representatives during Huntsman’s governorship and counts himself an admirer.

“His first term he governed with good conservative principles,” Clark says, “what I call Utah values.” Utah is the most Republican state in the country. It hasn’t had a Democratic governor in nearly 30 years, and Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers. If the governor had taken an extra Ambien the night before his inauguration in 2004 and slept for four years, the state would still have been governed with good conservative principles. But Huntsman early on was intent on being, as he would hate to say, “proactive.”

His signal achievements were lowering the graduated state income tax from a high of 7 percent to a flat 5 percent, effectively eliminating the state sales tax on food, and signing a series of pro-life bills that severely circumscribed access to abortion. He submitted balanced budgets, as he was required by law to do, and, during the flush years before the 2008 troubles, piled up an impressive rainy-day fund. An ambitious attempt to reform the state’s health care system has cut the number of uninsured children from 8.5 percent to 5.9 percent. The overall percentage of uninsured Utahns remains the same, though that alone counts as an achievement during an economic downturn.

According to a recent investigation by the Salt Lake Tribune, an early draft of the governor’s health care reform bill contained a mandate that all Utahns buy health insurance or face penalties. “Mandate,” of course, has become the toxic word in Republican health care debates and the chief ideological transgression of Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts—and a handy cudgel Huntsman uses to whomp the frontrunner, civilly. The Tribune’s Kirsten Stewart and Heather May found that in Utah the mandate was only abandoned “in the face of opposition from conservative lawmakers.”

“The governor did not engage in every issue that came along,” Clark says. “He’d allow the legislature to go its own way. But then when he decided he was interested in something he would step in, and at that point I learned never to underestimate the governor. He was very charming, very reserved, and very effective.”

Then came the 2008 landslide.

“After he was reelected, there was a more moderate side to Governor Huntsman that showed itself,” Clark says. “Some part of him is rooted in good conservative principles, the Utah values. Another part, a smaller part, is a little more moderate.”

In his first campaign, in 2004, Huntsman supported Amendment 3, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It was one of the few points of contention between him and his Democratic opponent, who went so far as to express “concerns” with some of the wording of the amendment. (In Utah, even Democrats hold to Utah values.)  

Five years later, after his reelection, Huntsman was asked about a “civil unions” bill being introduced in the state legislature and said he could support it, though the bill had no chance of becoming law. “That was a difference I had with the governor,” Clark says mildly. Huntsman’s support did nothing to dim his general popularity. And neither did another act of heresy: his support, as governor, for the Western Climate Initiative, in which he joined with four other Mountain State governors to commit their states to .  .  .

.  .  . well, it’s not clear what the WCI would commit the states to, as a practical matter. It has been characterized by the (also toxic) phrase “cap and trade,” meaning that the right to emit greenhouse gases would be auctioned off at ever accelerating prices, eventually reducing emissions drastically. The WCI, festooned with “goals” and “time-tables” and scientific projections of admirable specificity, is the kind of gesture that climate-change enthusiasts favor: grandly phrased, sweeping in its ambition, rooted in moral outrage, and utterly without effect. 

Huntsman’s campaign declined The Weekly Standard’s requests for an interview, but he has told reporters that cap and trade is no longer a workable option because our frail economy would not be able to absorb the heavy regulation the program would require. It’s a prudent shift in position for a politician who says he believes that global warming is caused by human activity—but who also believes that a healthy economy is a precondition for environmental improvement. 

A belief in global warming is no longer the approved Republican position, however, as Huntsman and Romney, another climate-change heretic, now painfully recognize. Just as Democrats pretend that political questions (“Should the government tear apart human embryos for medical research?”) are really scientific questions, Republicans pretend that scientific questions (“Is global warming real and if so what’s causing it?”) are political questions, and they judge their candidates accordingly. Huntsman has not allowed his free-market principles to color his reading of the scientific literature, and many Republicans won’t forgive him for it.

His deviationism is one reason why Huntsman’s campaign can be said to have peaked on that hazy morning in Liberty Park. The other reasons were on display there, too: the hoary rhetoric, the overpackaging that can’t quite obscure the obvious lack of anything fresh to say. Things started going downhill at once. The cable news networks, which had planned to carry the event live, returned to regular programming before Huntsman’s speech was over. Many of the TV cameras had been mispositioned and couldn’t capture the candidate and Lady Liberty in the same shot: He might as well have stayed in Utah. He made only one other appearance on announcement day, flying to New Hampshire to appear at the Exeter Town Hall. The buses carrying candidate, staff, and reporters were shuttled to the wrong chartered plane. When they found the correct plane, the pilot had gone missing. The event in New Hampshire drew a small crowd that kept its enthusiasm well short of a frenzy. TSA screeners held up the return flight from New Hampshire for 40 minutes. When the candidate himself came to the back of the plane for the inevitable chat with the press, hoping to lay out his vision for the future, he spoke so softly that most of the reporters couldn’t hear him.

Sometimes, in a presidential campaign, the problems really are bigger than the opportunities.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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