Huntsman: Too Nice to Be President?
Can the former governor’s even-keeled style win in a red-meat era?


Jim Geraghty

If you were trying to put together the dream résumé of a Republican presidential contender, it might look something like this:

— Staff Assistant, Pres. Ronald Reagan

● Ambassador to Singapore

● Deputy U.S. Trade Representative

● Two-term governor, elected in two landslides

● Signed into law the largest tax cut in his state’s history

● From 2005 to 2010, his state’s economy expanded by 3.5 percent annually, second-fastest in the nation and three and a half times faster than the U.S. economy as a whole

● Enacted a health-care reform that raised the legal standard for malpractice claims

● Enacted the most expansive school-voucher program in the country and three pieces of pro-life legislation

● Married, seven children, two adopted

● A financial net worth that makes self-funding a possibility, or at least suggests that his campaign is unlikely to run low on cash

This résumé, of course, is that of Jon Huntsman Jr., former governor of Utah and until recently the U.S. ambassador to China.

Yet Huntsman is, at this early date, a distinct long shot for the Republican nomination. He polls in single digits nationally, and a recent poll of 481 Iowa Republicans found precisely one supporter. For a little-known candidate, he has surprisingly high negatives among Republicans in some key primary states. He has already attracted hard-hitting videos from some bloggers slamming him as insufficiently conservative.

Never has a candidate with such a sterling résumé faced such a steep climb for the nomination — probably because few presidential candidates have worked for their prospective opponent, at least in the modern era. (Thomas Jefferson had worked for John Adams, but this was back when the second-place finisher in the presidential election assumed the office of vice president; Gen. George McClellan worked for Abraham Lincoln; Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott worked for Franklin Pierce; William Howard Taft worked for Theodore Roosevelt. More recently, Colin Powell served for about a year under President Clinton, but he decided against a run in 1996.) At the time, Joe Klein and Andrew Sullivan, among others, declared that Huntsman’s accepting the appointment as President Obama’s ambassador to China would make it impossible for him to become the Republican nominee in 2012.

Huntsman says that in his meetings with voters in his not-quite-campaign stage, he has encountered criticism for his service under a Democratic president, but not often. “I can usually see it in their eyes when I meet them,” he says. “But it has come up much less frequently than I expected.”

He emphasizes his beliefs that as ambassador he was serving the country, not President Obama, and that there is in fact a broad bipartisan agreement on U.S.-China relations. He mentions occasional disagreements with President Obama on U.S. policy toward China, lamenting that at times he wished the president had emphasized American values as much as American interests, but Huntsman characterizes the differences as minor. (Shortly before leaving his post, Huntsman sharply criticized the Chinese government during a speech in Shanghai, denouncing the imprisonment of three high-profile activists.) He reiterates that his work with Obama was on this one bilateral relationship, and that he has significant differences with the overall vision of Obama’s foreign policy.

Most notably, Huntsman deeply disagrees with President Obama’s decision to take military action in Libya, declaring it not a “core national-security interest.” He wants to see a smaller footprint for the U.S. in Afghanistan. He echoes the complaint of most Republicans that in terms of foreign policy, Obama has been harder on America’s allies than on most hostile countries.


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