In what was a turbulent year for MSNBC — resignations, terminations, program shuffling, that bizarre Russell Brand interview, and a bunch of apologies — one on-air personality proved to be the type of employee who wouldn’t cause much of a ruckus. She didn’t ruffle any feathers, step on any toes, or rock any boats. The problem is that causing ruckuses is sort of what Abby Huntsman’s role on The Cycle is supposed to be.
Up until last summer, S. E. Cupp served as the sole conservative voice on The Cycle, the network’s ensemble gabfest similar to Fox News’s The Five. Before her departure, Cupp helped make MSNBC’s otherwise repetitive programming at least somewhat interesting, even if just for an hour. Outnumbered by her three left-leaning co-hosts, Cupp took on the Cerberus of progressive talking heads that was Touré, Krystal Ball, and Steve Kornacki. Day in and day out, she armed herself with passion, charm, and her signature rectangular glasses and articulated conservative positions and, consequently, provided some actual debate on the network. From Second Amendment rights to economic policy to abortion, she made strong cases for the Right and kept her colleagues on their toes, all while maintaining a friendly dynamic with them. She wasn’t hostile, but she was tough and challenged Touré, Ball, Kornacki, and later Ari Melber to make the case rather than just offer caricatures of conservatism.
Cupp is now one-half of the conservative tag team with Newt Gingrich on CNN’s reboot of Crossfire, where she continues to display her trademark style opposite former Obama flacks Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones. Her departure meant MSNBC needed to find a replacement, ushering in the Huntsman Experiment (which may have been one of the band names in the running when her dad, former Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman, was an aspiring keyboardist). She seemed to fit the bill for the new Cycle co-host: young, dynamic, and with some conservative credentials. The “Huntsman” name may not rival “Krauthammer” or “Will” in the hallowed hall of conservative opinion makers, but for an afternoon show on MSNBC, Huntsman seemed to be a good fit.
But in the six months since becoming a Cyclist, she still has her training wheels, helmet, and kneepads on. Pushing back against her colleagues doesn’t seem to be within Huntsman’s repertoire, which tends to pose a problem on a partisan talk show where you represent the minority view. Largely staying away from confrontation, she will put up as much fight as a New York City subway turnstile: You can push past fairly easily, and at most you’ll have to take another swipe before you eventually get through. She reads off a couple of related factoids about the subject without staking out much of a conservative position. That’s about the best conservatives can hope for from her.
When Huntsman does chime in on conservatism, you may have to double-take to make sure it’s not Krystal Ball talking. On an average afternoon, if you didn’t know she’s “the conservative one,” her rhetoric would not tip you off. More often than not, she’s shaking her head and rolling her eyes at those awkward and blundering Republicans, laughing along with her colleagues at the party’s woes. One can almost see #SMH or #facepalm hashtags when she speaks, and she lets it be known that she basically feels like she’s rooting for Wile E. Coyote. Furthermore, with each taunt, she only perpetuates the narrative that pretty much everyone else on MSNBC has been pushing since the break of dawn that day. The difference being that this time it isn’t a left-winger like Ed Rendell or Howard Fineman saying it, but the in-house conservative. You can see the typical MSNBC viewer thinking: If even Abby Huntsman is saying so, then we must be right!
Don’t think that she’s just any conservative, though. Huntsman goes out of her way to distinguish herself from those Republicans; she’s a “moderate, rational” one. Earlier this week, Al Sharpton wished we had “more ‘Huntsman Republicans,’” and went out of his way to specify he meant ones like Abby, and not like her father. She laments Republican gerrymandering and extremism, pleads for the party to get back in the “mainstream,” and joins her co-hosts in decrying the Tea Party’s “nonsense.” In October, she tweeted that “Ted Cruz preaching to the Tea Party makes my stomach cringe” and urged the Tea Party to “please start your own party so the GOP can begin functioning again.” And whenever she has an opportunity to give some constructive feedback, such as during her turn in the show’s closing monologues, she tickles her colleagues by saying that the GOP is “the Chicago Cubs of politics” or by teasing Republicans for treating minorities and women like “other species.” And what advice for Republicans do we hear from “the conservative voice of reason”? Be “a little more sane” in 2014. Real helpful, Abby — I hope Reince is listening.
Huntsman’s lack of resistance to left-wing attacks combined with an uneasiness about embracing anything having to do with Republicans makes her come off as a girl just trying to get on a good footing with her boyfriend’s parents at the dinner table that is the MSNBC studio. But this attitude poses a problem for the show’s supposed purpose, which is to be an animated back-and-forth with varying perspectives. Having drawn partisan lines as a debate show, The Cycle needs its participants to mix it up a bit to make the programming interesting; four people all agreeing with one another is hardly compelling television, and, for the most part, that’s what weekdays at 3 p.m. now look like. Other than Morning Joe, The Cycle is MSNBC’s one show that specifically designates a conservative voice, but with Huntsman largely forsaking that role, the show “has officially transitioned from a rip-off of The Five to a shrill snoozer that fits in with the rest of MSNBC’s programming,” in the words of Breitbart’s Jeff Poor. It’s not just critics on the right: Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple noticed the show’s regression, saying that Huntsman has made “S. E. Cupp’s shoes appear size 14.”
The issue for conservatives, and for those looking for engaging television, is not that Huntsman doesn’t have enough bumps and bruises from her tussles with The Cycle’s trinity of leftists — it’s that she doesn’t put herself in positions to even get a scratch, nor does she seem interested in doing so. She pretends to be marching into the lions’ den, but only to more or less pal around with the lions and feed them what they want. Conservatives aren’t asking her to go in and slay them, but she shouldn’t be afraid to roar back from time to time.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.