I had planned to write a column explaining why Republican voters should give Jon Huntsman a second look. The timing was right: less than four weeks until New Hampshire. There had been a slight increase in Huntsman’s polling numbers, and other columnists were hesitantly fanning the flames of a possible, if improbable, victory. He’s a politician whose virtues I felt had not yet been reflected in the polls. I believed that, unlike other, less deserving candidates, he hadn’t yet been given his turn in the media cycle.
Then I drove to New Hampshire and watched him debate Newt Gingrich for an hour and a half.
It seemed to be a great opportunity for Huntsman to share the stage — and a captive audience of journalists and voters — with the frontrunner. Moreover, the debate topic would play to the former Utah governor’s strength: foreign policy.
The opportunity was missed. Rather than seizing the moment to make what I think is a compelling case for both his worldview and his qualifications for the presidency, Huntsman put his own daughter to sleep in the front of the auditorium. (Gingrich graciously took the credit.) If, as New York magazine’s John Heilemann suggested, Huntsman’s strategy at the debate was to damage Romney by helping Gingrich siphon votes from the Romney campaign, he probably succeeded. If his strategy was to attract voters away from Romney to him, he failed.
In Monday’s debate, Huntsman showed no desire to be president, certainly not when compared with Romney — or even Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul. Gingrich really wants to be president, and had nothing to lose by sharing his spotlight with the former ambassador to China. But Huntsman, who had the most to gain if he had stepped up to the plate and challenged Gingrich (or at least taken a few shots at Romney), didn’t even come close to drawing blood — except perhaps his own.
I first saw Jon Huntsman speak last July at Dartmouth. He spoke thoughtfully and knowledgeably on foreign policy and seemed a rare, and welcome, voice of reason. But right after the speech, he skipped town to attend his son’s induction-day ceremony at the Naval Academy, leaving behind supporters and journalists who wanted to talk with him. I found this a questionable “good parent” excuse, but I brushed it aside at the time. There is something noble in wanting to be a good dad, but I wondered if he understood that when you run for president there’s a tacit acknowledgement that parental duties will suffer.
This week, my suspicions were confirmed. Monday’s debate — in truth, more of a foreign-policy panel — managed somehow to be uninformative, despite covering topics from Afghanistan to China. There were a few interesting things to picked out among the bland — that we should steal manufacturing jobs back from China, for instance — but for the most part it wasn’t the penetrating, in-depth discussion of America’s role in the world that the two had promised. (Gingrich had stated it would be “a serious discussion” about “the nature of the world.”) It certainly wasn’t a “Lincoln–Douglas” debate as billed, in large part because Lincoln and Douglas actually disagreed when they locked horns. Douglas maintained that “popular sovereignty” was the best way of containing slavery, and opposed Lincoln’s domino-theory view that the unchecked evil would ultimately enslave all laborers and thus the entire nation.
The big foreign-policy question in 2012 will be the prospect of war with Iran. It’s a looming threat, and Gingrich shared his vision that, when Iran becomes nuclear, the Israeli prime minister will face “the second Holocaust” and come to the American president with “two planning choices” — conventional war, if America choose to cooperate, but otherwise “as many nuclear missiles as I need to take out the Iranians.” Gingrich was clear where he stood: “I will not allow Israel to be subjected to the threat of a holocaust.” Huntsman didn’t argue, adding only that sanctions were doomed and that the U.S.-Israel relationship was the key to long-term stability in the region because “we have a free-trade agreement with Israel.”
It’s difficult to believe that a seasoned diplomat like Huntsman didn’t have anything insightful to add on Iran — that he could only reiterate Gingrich’s fealty to Israel. But then maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps Huntsman is just too much of a diplomat. It will not aid him: Politics in New Hampshire is not diplomacy in Beijing. These days, it’s a gritty and over-the-top spectacle.
As I have written previously on NRO, Huntsman seems cut in the mold of former president George H. W. Bush — an experienced statesman armed with conservative credentials that would allow him to be a force on the national political scene. But it’s difficult to imagine George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan nodding agreeably on stage with a rival instead of going for the win. Reagan himself had a game-changing debate in New Hampshire in 1980 after Bush’s stunning though narrow victory in Iowa looked set to doom Reagan. Bush agreed to a Reagan-funded one-on-one debate three days before the New Hampshire primary, but Reagan invited the other remaining Republican hopefuls to join them, and then dismissed the moderator’s attempt to turn off his microphone by angrily stating that he was paying for it. The way he broke his deal with Bush wasn’t gentlemanly, but Reagan won the debate, New Hampshire, and the election.
The finale of Monday’s debacle: Gingrich bailed out on the post-debate press conference, a brilliant move that left Huntsman awkwardly answering questions from a bunch of storyless reporters about all the provocative things his opponent had said. Huntsman wouldn’t refute any of them. There was not a single question from the press about anything Huntsman had discussed over the previous hour and a half. Huntsman, I thought, seems like a good man, a smart man, a man whose daughters have brought life and excitement and enthusiasm and youth into the Republican campaign. Yet he just doesn’t want to fight. I’m still holding out hope — less than four weeks left! — that he’ll prove me wrong.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.