Richard Quinn, who has been working for Republican presidential candidates in South Carolina since 1980, thinks he has found a winner this time: “I think he’s the best I’ve seen, he’s so relaxed, at ease with himself.” He is speaking of Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and, more recently, ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
But Quinn isn’t happy about all the praise Huntsman has been receiving. President Obama said in January that he “couldn’t be happier” with Huntsman’s service. His chief of staff, Bill Daley, followed up in March: “His support of the Obama administration, his support of the president, the things he did on behalf of this administration, and the closeness in which he worked with the president is most appreciated.” Obama strategist David Axelrod, in April, praised Huntsman for being “willing to buck the tide of his own party.”
The administration “is trying to hug him to death,” Quinn complains. “But it’s not working.”
The press, when it talks about Huntsman, often treats him as the Republicans’ strongest general-election candidate, and it does so because it views him as the most moderate member of the field. But the inner circle of the campaign — well, of the possible campaign: Huntsman is still making up his mind — shuns the moderate label. It will hurt in the primaries. The Democrats’ poison-pen love letters may reflect their agreement on both counts: Huntsman’s moderation will make it hard for him to get the nomination but would make him a formidable nominee.
John Weaver, Huntsman’s top strategist, makes the case for his candidate this way, avoiding the M-word altogether: “He’s the most conservative fiscal conservative who has the credibility to win in the general election. He is the only candidate on our side of the equation who has deep and thorough foreign-policy experience. The only one with the consistent ability to reach out to independent and disaffected voters and bring them under the center-right umbrella.”
Weaver is right about the foreign-policy experience. Most former governors — including Huntsman’s possible rivals Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin — do not have much of it. Huntsman was ambassador to Singapore during the elder Bush’s administration. He served the second Bush as a trade representative. And under President Obama he was the point man on what may be the most important bilateral relationship our country has, the one with China.
Conservatives who are suspicious of Huntsman’s moderation usually mention his service to the president. And his gushing letter to Obama from August 2009, which was naturally leaked. (“You are a remarkable leader,” with the adjective underlined.) Huntsman says that accepting the president’s request to represent the country was his patriotic duty. But the association with this administration isn’t all his Republican critics bring up.
In 2009, a few months after his reelection, Huntsman came out for civil unions; it wasn’t the position expected of a Mormon governor of Utah. Huntsman supported letting the children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition. Like other Republicans in the presidential field — Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty — he favored “cap and trade” to fight global warming. (Unlike Pawlenty, who says his support was a “mistake,” Huntsman merely says that the state of the economy makes the policy inadvisable right now.) He not only accepted all the stimulus money his state could get, but said in 2009 that the stimulus “probably wasn’t large enough.” Around the same time, he talked a fair amount about the party’s need to move to the center and suggested that it had become “a very narrow party of angry people.”
#page#Huntsman’s strategy is to avoid caucus states, such as Iowa, on the theory that they reward a more combative conservatism. (Weaver offers a more diplomatic though less plausible explanation for ignoring Iowa: Huntsman opposes ethanol subsidies, which are popular there, and it could be too late to start a campaign there.) His opportunity will come in the states with open primaries, where voters do not have to be registered Republicans, including states with early roles in the nomination contest, such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. Especially South Carolina, where Huntsman recently gave a high-profile college-commencement speech.
Quinn, the operative in that state, justifies the attention given to South Carolina’s primary by pointing out that since it began in 1980, its winner has won the Republican nomination in every election. “Iowa is poised to nominate the most religiously conservative candidate” and is dominated by “the base of the base.” New Hampshire’s picks, on the other hand, “are maybe not conservative enough” and “may not be particularly popular with the base.” South Carolina voters, on this account, have just the right amount of conservatism to represent the national party.
A Republican rules change may help Huntsman. The party’s presidential primaries used to be winner-take-all: Even a tiny plurality would give the winner all the state’s delegates. Under the new rules, later primaries will give the candidates delegates proportional to their vote share. So Huntsman will have an incentive to stay in.
Weaver notes an advantage of a primary strategy based on winning independent voters in the primaries: It means the candidate would not have to pivot to a new strategy and court a new group of voters after winning them: “The way to beat Obama is not any different from the way to win the nomination.”
So: Huntsman has taken some unconservative positions and said things that most conservatives dislike, and is relying on the votes of nonconservatives to win the nomination. For his conservative critics, hanging the moderate label on him is well justified.
But his defenders point out that his record includes some accomplishments that most conservatives would applaud. Huntsman cut Utah taxes, replacing an income tax that had a top rate of 7 percent with a flat 5 percent rate. He is pro-life and signed three anti-abortion measures into law. He got a school-voucher law through the legislature, although it was overturned in a referendum. He signed two bills loosening gun regulations.
Huntsman supporters point out that George W. Bush, not generally regarded as a squish on social issues, supported civil unions too. For that matter, Christian-conservative leader James Dobson has also supported a type of civil-union law, specifically one that makes it easier for unmarried people, whatever their relationship, to make certain contractual arrangements. (Weaver says that’s what Huntsman has in mind, too.) Huntsman is well to the right of Rudy Giuliani on social issues, and Giuliani was able to win Pat Robertson’s support.
On immigration, too, Huntsman is at least a little to Bush’s right. He wants all four border-state governors to certify that the border is secure before any comprehensive reform is contemplated. Huntsman, unlike such northeastern Republican moderates as Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Scott Brown, supports Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms. He is more unequivocally for them than Mitt Romney or even Michele Bachmann.
#page#Weaver allows that some of Huntsman’s conservative accomplishments as governor reflect the composition of the Utah legislature. But it remains the case that for most of the last few decades — even as recently as a decade ago — a Republican with Huntsman’s record on life, taxes, guns, and vouchers would not have been considered a moderate. In the Reagan years he would have been placed on the right end of the party, with such Republican powerhouses as Bob Dole, Chuck Percy, and Bob Packwood well to his left.
The definition of “moderate” is unstable, notes former Republican congressman Tom Davis, who chairs the Republican Main Street Partnership. While in Congress from 1995 to 2008 he was considered moderate for supporting free trade, the right to work, and school vouchers, while also supporting legal abortion. Other members of his group, he points out, are “social conservatives from labor districts” who “don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Huntsman, he says, will attract independent voters “because he doesn’t seem to be overly catering to the Right. His whole campaign is a broader focus.” While Davis thinks that Pawlenty and Romney also have some potential appeal to independents, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin “crater with the more educated voters.”
That Huntsman is perceived as a moderate tells us that today’s Republican party is divided at least as much by tone and tactics as by ideology. Rob Portman, the new senator from Ohio, has very conventionally conservative stances on social and economic issues, but is considered a moderate because he projects a thoughtful and compromising demeanor. Donald Trump, on the other hand, won some conservative fans largely on the strength of his style, which they regarded as gutsy and his critics saw as bumptious. Their zeal for him declined a bit, but only a bit, when they learned about his many past liberal positions.
All the Republican presidential candidates want serious spending cuts, oppose tax increases and seek at least some tax cuts, and think union privileges should be reduced. Almost all of them are pro-life: The only exception is former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who is a much longer shot than such prior pro-choice candidates as Pete Wilson and Giuliani. Liberals think that Republicans have moved to the far right, but that does not appear to be true in relation to the public. The party has many more congressmen and state legislators than it did in the 1980s, when by these measures it was less conservative.
Conservatives are often tempted to dwell on the inadequacies of the Republican party and its leaders — on their lack of commitment to conservative causes. That is one reason Huntsman, whom they distrust, is unlikely to win the nomination. Take the long view, though, and Huntsman is an excellent illustration of the extent to which conservatives have already won their battles inside the Republican party.