Jon Huntsman ended his presidential campaign exactly as he began it: as a pompous, sermonizing mannequin.
To say that Huntsman was Mitt Romney without the flair would be unfair — to Mitt Romney. Despite their surface similarities, Romney and Huntsman were enormously different candidates. Huntsman lacked all of Romney’s great strengths — a reason for running, a coherent message for the voters, a plan for winning, and the discipline, organization, and killer instinct necessary to defeat his opponents. Huntsman brought two visible attributes to the table: condescension and the need for adulation.
He tried to mask his disdain for rank-and-file Republican voters by pandering to them relentlessly. He treated them as beings of little intellect who could be manipulated with cartoonish sloganeering. His campaign kick-off ad referred to him as the “ultimate conservative.” I asked him on the first day of his campaign what that meant, and he rather uncomfortably tried to squirm out of the characterization. From Day One he struggled to reconcile his real identity with the “consistent conservative” candidate he was trying to sell, and he never succeeded.
On arriving in the old Exeter town hall to launch his New Hampshire campaign on June 21, he delivered this line: “My family has spent just a little bit of time coming up with what we hope is going to be an appropriate motto for this campaign. It goes something like this. See if you like it: ‘Live free or die!’” (For anyone who doesn’t know, that is New Hampshire’s state motto.)
The Saturday Night Live sketch with Seth Meyers was not a parody. That is how Huntsman actually campaigned here. And with lines like this, also delivered in his opening speech: “For the first time in our history, we are passing on to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive, and less confident than the one we got, and all I’m here to say is that this is totally, totally unacceptable.”
Totally. That was, more or less, all Huntsman had to say. He issued some position papers that contained specific steps for undoing the current state of affairs, but he preferred to talk about how serious and substantive he was, and how much he knew about China. He called himself a conservative during the debates, though on the ground he dodged New Hampshire’s most conservative towns and wooed the more liberal areas rich in independent and moderate Republican votes.
(A noteworthy aside: Mitt Romney is fluent in French, but nonetheless avoided speaking in French to the many voters of French-Canadian descent in New Hampshire. Huntsman, by contrast, couldn’t resist throwing in some Chinese just to show he could speak it.)
Huntsman rarely missed an opportunity to declare that the current political process was broken, capable of being fixed only by a candidate as serious, worldly, and wise as himself, and yet he rarely took an opportunity to distinguish himself from the rest of the field on substance rather than style. And when he did, he would do things like call the base crazy for doubting that humans cause global warming — or for not warming to his candidacy.
I sometimes wonder if destiny misplaced Jon Huntsman by a few centuries or a few thousand miles. For all the reasons that he made a poor presidential candidate, he would make a fine British prince, which always seemed more a suitable position for him anyway.
— Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor for the New Hampshire Union Leader.