Jon Huntsman for President in 2012?
2:05 PM, Jan 3, 2011 • By JAY COST
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.