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Morning Jay: The "Yes...But" Republican Field

6:00 AM, Mar 9, 2011 • By JAY COST
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On Monday, Jim Geraghty offered a thought experiment about the nascent candidacy of Jon Huntsman:

[S]ome conservative bloggers [are] expressing great skepticism about the potential presidential bid of Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and soon to depart as ambassador to China. Scoff if you want, but there’s at least one way for a Huntsman bid to quickly generate a lot of buzz.

Picture it: It’s early summer 2011. Huntsman has launched his campaign to a generally “meh” reception, and now, in his first major policy address, he goes to Washington, D.C. He gives a lunch speech at the Brookings Institution or some other centrist, non-conservative foreign policy think tank — his natural base of support, really...

And then, in detail, Huntsman paints a picture of an administration that is flailing, frozen with indecision, short-sighted, often at war with itself, disorganized, and ultimately lacking any sense of what it wanted to do after Obama had finished his apology tour.

For starters, this is an excellent strategic approach -- one that the Huntsman people should seriously consider. Call it the "whistleblower candidacy;" it really could help solve his princpal problem in pursuit of the nomination, which is that he seems too close to Obama.

Geraghty's post also got me thinking more broadly about the Republican field, about which there seems to be a good bit of skepticism. In a recent column, George Will listed the major potentials: Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. Each of them brings strengths to the table, but with all of them there seems to be a pretty substantial 'but...' Barbour is a wonky Republican with a great résumé, but he is a former lobbyist. Daniels is also wonky and serious about the deficit, but he wants a truce on social issues. Huntsman has solid credentials in thoroughly Republican Utah, but he worked for Obama. Pawlenty governed a blue state in a conservative fashion, but he lacks pizzazz. Romney's business background is an asset in these tough economic times, but Romneycare is a sticking point.

Call it the "Yes...but" field. There are good things to say about each of them, followed by a pretty substantial caveat. Is this historically unusual?

Not really. Right now there isn't a frontrunner, which is indeed rare for the Republican field, but when you look back through past nomination processes, you'll see that most non-incumbent postwar Republican candidates fall into this "Yes...but" category--even the frontrunners.

In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower wasn't really in tune with the growing conservative base of the party, and had to fend off a convention challenge from 'Mr. Republican,' Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. When Richard Nixon ran in 1968, he had to fend off the tag of a loser. Ditto Ronald Reagan in 1980, who was a two-time loser by that point. Bob Dole seemed old and not that conservative in 1996. Four years later George W. Bush had to prove that he was his own man, and not just a repackaged version of his father. John McCain seemed old and not that conservative in 2008. One would think that vice presidents are no-brainers for the nomination, but Nixon had to make a deal with Nelson Rockefeller (the so-called "Treaty of Fifth Avenue") in 1960 and George H. W. Bush finished third in Iowa behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in 1988.

The reality is, it is a very rare event that a Republican candidate is a slam dunk for the nomination. Instead, with most every candidate, somebody out there was saying 'Yes...but!' at some point. The challenge for each candidate in the modern nomination system -- with the series of primaries and caucuses -- is to prove that, in practice, their liabilities are not as bad as they seem to be in theory.

As a good example of how a candidate goes about doing that, consider Reagan's great moment at the debate in Nashua, New Hampshire. This old article from Time does a good job of tracking Reagan's transformation:

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