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Jon Huntsman for President in 2012?

2:05 PM, Jan 3, 2011 • By JAY COST
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The latest edition of Newsweek says that Jon Huntsman might be interested in running for president:

The moderate Republican had once been considered a rising star in the GOP and a likely 2012 contender, with David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign mastermind, even identifying Huntsman as the only Republican who made him “a wee bit queasy” about the next race. But speculation ended abruptly in 2009 when Obama tapped Huntsman for the ambassadorship... 

Now, it appears, the ambassador is ready to make some noise of his own...“You know, I’m really focused on what we’re doing in our current position,” he says. “But we won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” Asked whether he is prepared to rule out a run in 2012 (since it would require him to campaign against his current boss), he declines to comment. 

The winking response—about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you’ll get from a sitting member of the incumbent’s administration—could just be a hollow cry for attention. But sources close to Huntsman (who requested anonymity to speak freely without his permission) say that during his December trip to the U.S., he met with several former political advisers in Washington and Salt Lake City to discuss a potential campaign. “I’m not saying he’s running,” says one supporter who has worked with him in the past. “But we’re a fire squad; if he says the word, we can get things going fast.”

Newsweek might be exaggerating Huntsman's inclination to run here. After all, he did recently purchase a house in Washington, D.C., which is not a great first step in running for a party nomination that will be dominated by the Tea Party.  

But let's assume that Huntsman wants to run.  Would he be a viable candidate?  Could the former Utah governor turned Obama administration ambassador to China actually run against his boss in 2012?

Well, at a minimum we can say that it is not historically unprecedented, as Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. tried a similar campaign in 1964. John F. Kennedy had named Lodge – a former Massachusetts senator, the mastermind of the Eisenhower nomination in 1952, and the Republican nominee for vice president in 1960 – to be ambassador to South Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated, there was suddenly an angle for Lodge, at least in theory. LBJ would presumably run strong in the South and West, but a Republican nominee from the Northeast might help the party take the region, which would give it at least a shot at victory.

So in 1964 Lodge ran a kind of shadow campaign. He stayed in Vietnam, did not put out issue papers, and left the details to others. The image he wanted to project was one of a dutiful public servant who would not campaign actively for the nomination, but would accept a draft from his fellow citizens. When he defeated Barry Goldwater in the New Hampshire primary in March, he displaced Nelson "Rocky" Rockefeller as the premier anti-Goldwater candidate. Rocky – the original RINO – was the governor of New York, which made him a perennial contender for the GOP nomination, but his image suffered greatly when he divorced his wife and married Happy Rockefeller, who was many years his junior. This gave Lodge his opening, and the ambassador followed up his win in New Hampshire with victories in New Jersey and Massachusetts in April. In Pennsylvania he finished second – well ahead of Goldwater – behind favorite son William Scranton. But Rockefeller struck back in the Oregon primary held in May, in large part by going negative against Lodge, criticizing him for not respecting the people enough to actually campaign. Lodge lost the primary by about 5 percent, and Rockefeller went on to lose the California primary to Barry Goldwater, all but ensuring the latter's nomination.

Lodge's experience suggests a crucial limitation to the Huntsman campaign. Americans know that most politicians are hyper-ambitious egomaniacs, but for some reason they don't like to be reminded of that during the campaign season. Thus, politicians are always doing things to deflect or distract from their desire for power. For instance, they regularly refer to their candidacies with words like "we" and "our," instead of using the more accurate first person singular. Public distaste for the open lusting of power also helps explain why so many soon-to-be Republican candidates are still playing it coy, even though many of them made up their minds to run the moment Obama won the 2008 election. This popular sentiment also accounts for why Lodge did not – and could not – run an active campaign in 1964. He had a very important post in the LBJ administration, so he was going to drop it to run against his boss? That wouldn't look very good, which is why he instead quietly endorsed a "draft Lodge" candidacy.

In our modern nomination process, there really would be no practical way for Huntsman to run a Lodge-style shadow campaign. Nobody gets "drafted" anymore, which in turn means that Huntsman could not plausibly try to present the fiction that he had been drafted. Instead, the presidential nomination requires at least a year of active campaigning, raising of tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars, and the dogged pursuit of delegates in primaries and caucuses across the nation. No longer can you hang in the background and wait for delegates at the convention to appreciate how you are the best choice. You have to get out there early and work your tail off. Thus, Huntsman would actually have to resign from his ambassadorship to hit the campaign trail, where he would presumably start attacking his former boss, making him look hyper-ambitious and disloyal. Lodge had the right idea in 1964 to avoid resigning to campaign actively, as such a candidacy was bound to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans. If Huntsman were to try for the nomination, he would have no other choice but to do exactly that. It could never work.

Huntsman would have another problem, just as large, that James Fallows points out in this Atlantic piece. The early 1960s was a time when there were often few differences between the two major parties. (Watch, for instance, that famous Nixon-Kennedy debate and try to figure out which one is the more liberal candidate, and which is the more conservative.) And so, all through 1963 and 1964, LBJ actually registered the approval of better than 50 percent of self-identified Republicans. A Lodge candidacy – had it made it to the general election – would surely have blurred domestic policy distinctions and been more biographical in tone, so as to appeal to the Northeast. That might have worked, given the fuzziness of party identification back then.

Yet that could never succeed today, an age when there is a huge ideological gap, not to mention mutual distrust, between the two major parties. In its latest poll, Gallup reported that Barack Obama wins the support of just 12 percent of self-identified Republicans. Are Republicans really going to nominate an Obama administration official? Of course not, which means Huntsman would get squeezed on both ends. The mainstream media would inevitably tag him as an ambitious politician who betrayed his boss, while his Republican opponents would tell GOP primary voters that he is just a tool of Obama and the Democrats – the RINO to end all RINOs!

My feeling is that, when it's all said and done, Huntsman destroyed any chance of being president when he accepted this ambassadorship from Obama. I just don't see how he can run against his boss in 2012, and more broadly I don't see how he ever gets a party nomination from Americans who disapprove of President Obama by nearly 9:1.

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