Magazine | October 17, 2011, Issue

The President of Rock

(Roman Genn)
Jon Huntsman’s lonely quest for moderate nirvana

Sandown, N.H. — In a presidential-primary race boasting not one but two stiff and plasticky multimillionaire Mormon Republican ex-governors, Jon Huntsman has hit upon an oddball strategy: He’s going to be the cool stiff and plasticky multimillionaire Mormon Republican ex-governor — the Harley-straddling, “more spiritual than religious,” Dream Theater–loving, keyboard-playing, moderate rock star of our dreams. Whose dreams, exactly? That’s an awkward question: Outlaw bikers call themselves “1 percenters,” and September’s Gallup numbers had the motorcycle-loving Governor Huntsman a 1 percenter, too — dead last in the affections of Republican primary voters, with one-thirteenth the support of atavistic Robert Taft impersonator Ron Paul and half the support of idealistic no-hoper Rick Santorum. He’s serving up Morningstar Farms veggie burgers to a Republican electorate ravenous for raw red meat. It’s an Us-and-Them election, and Huntsman, a former envoy to China, is positioning himself as Republican ambassador to Them.

“We’re going to need a lot of independents on board if we’re going to win in 2012,” Huntsman says. “I think I’m the only candidate in the race that can really reach out to them.” Huntsman is not the only one who thinks that. “Out of all the candidates out there, Jon Huntsman is the only one who really scares me,” a Democratic lobbyist tells me. “Independents, moderates, white suburban voters, women — he can appeal to them in a way that Rick Perry can’t.” That’s the kind of endorsement Huntsman would like: He’s the presentable one, the one who can win. Which would probably be true if the Republican primary electorate had anything much in common with Democratic lobbyists and the self-appointed everymen of the New York Times. The paper of alleged record takes Huntsman so seriously that it once headlined a piece about him: “Why Huntsman Should Be Taken Seriously.” (Seriously.) The Times has even floated a little conspiracy theory, popular in political circles, that the Obama administration appointed Huntsman ambassador to China because it would cripple him as a presidential candidate. It has, at the very least, hobbled him — a fact of which Republicans should not be proud.

Conservatives, for the most part, have greeted Huntsman’s Charlie Crist–meets–Montgomery Burns act with galloping contempt. When Tom Ridge endorsed Huntsman, Rush Limbaugh held a contest, offering a free case of his trademark sweet tea to the first listener who could accurately identify both Jon Huntsman and Tom Ridge. Much gleeful mockery ensued. Back in May, I asked on National Review Online, “Why not Huntsman?” and the response was nearly unanimously hostile. “May 2011, and already we’re negotiating down to Huntsman?” one reader replied. “At this rate, by November 2012, Howard Dean will be our choice.”

It didn’t have to be that way. Don’t try to convince a Republican primary voter of the fact, but Huntsman is a pretty conservative figure by any non-moonbat standard. Not too many years ago, he would have been considered hard-Right: Under his watch, Utah banned second-trimester abortions and imposed stiff penalties for performing other illegal abortions, passed a fetal-pain bill, and imposed parental-consent restrictions. He supports a “trigger bill” that would make abortions illegal if Roe v. Wade were overturned. His tax proposal — three personal-income tax brackets pegged at 8, 14, and 23 percent, a 25 percent corporate-tax rate, and zero deductions — is more radical than anything contemplated by the likes of Newt Gingrich, or Ronald Reagan for that matter. He’s to the right of Dick Cheney on gay marriage, and his enthusiasm for civil unions puts him squarely in George W. Bush territory. Sure, he took stimulus money from the Obama administration — along with Rick Perry and every other governor in these United States. But he also cut taxes and supported school choice, and the NRA loves him. His record in Utah, as Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in these pages (“The Moderate,” June 20), is one most conservatives would envy.

#page#And though it is a source of endless irritation to many conservatives, Huntsman’s service to the Obama administration as ambassador to China was the crowning achievement of a diplomatic career that found him representing his country in Beijing and Singapore, and gaining extensive experience in Taiwan and South Korea. He is a shrewd and thoughtful judge of the U.S.-China relationship. He rightly scoffs at Mitt Romney’s threat to impose trade sanctions on China as bluster, and is neither overawed by the Chinese juggernaut nor naïve about the fact that one partner in what he calls “the world’s most important bilateral relationship” is a ruthless police state. He speaks with real insight on subjects ranging from the barriers facing entrepreneurial innovation in Singapore to the pending leadership crisis in the Chinese Communist Party, subjects about which no other presidential candidate — Republican or Democrat — has one interesting or useful thing to say.

You’d think that would be the record he would be running on — at least during the primary — but it’s not. Jon Huntsman, a direct lineal descendant of the pilgrims who made the trek to Utah after the death of Joseph Smith, third cousin to Mitt Romney, son of a billionaire entrepreneur-philanthropist, is running for president of rock-’n’-roll.

“That 30-second sound-bite debate format, it’s like the short version of ‘Stairway to Heaven,’” Huntsman tells the small crowd gathered to hear his pitch at the town hall in Sandown, N.H. “I prefer the extended version.” And crickets chirped in the cool New England evening. It was reminiscent of his reference to Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain in the earlier primary debate — a little too hip for the room, a gambit that left everybody under 40 suppressing a groan, and everybody over 40 nonplussed. (The late Mr. Cobain was a Jerry Brown supporter, as his bandmate Krist Novoselic noted after the awkward shout-out.) And it’s not just rock-’n’-roll: Governor Huntsman is trying really, really hard to ingratiate himself with the cool kids, declaring at every opportunity that when it comes to the cultural fault line that separates Manhattan from Mayberry, Austin from Amarillo, and Berkeley from Bakersfield, Jon Huntsman is more a half-caff soy latte than a bottle of Bud. Even his experience in China, which ought to be his trump card in a field not exactly thick with foreign-policy expertise, loses its luster when refracted through the prism of his vanity: He bragged that he looked forward to addressing the Chinese people in Chinese, he answered one question about China with “Would you like the answer in Chinese or English?” and he basically never passes up an opportunity to affirm that he knows some foreign languages, accepts the standard scientific accounts of evolution and global warming, and is not, you know, a rube.

It’s not obvious that this is going to be a winning strategy. A few members of the Republican Liberty Caucus — the Ron Paul brigade — came out to have a gander at Huntsman in New Hampshire, and they liked what they saw, although Huntsman was by consensus their third choice behind Ron Paul and Gary Johnson — Doctor No and Governor Who? — and it wasn’t what Huntsman was saying that they liked, but what he wasn’t saying. “Huntsman doesn’t talk about the social stuff,” one RLCer said. “And that’s what we like about him.” So, here’s a guy with a seriously pro-life record, a Mormon with a raft of kids, who ought to be reasonably at home with the social conservatives, going out of his way to distance himself from them. He’s the anti-SoCon SoCon, laboring like a hyperactive beaver to gnaw off one leg of the three-legged stool upon which successful Republican presidential candidates sit.

Forget South Carolina and Iowa: Jon Huntsman, would-be rock star, may be too cool for New Hampshire. There’s a reason the Granite State looms large in the Republican presidential contest. Even with a loan from his dad, Jon Huntsman could not have bought himself a better backdrop than the one he had in Sandown. Across the parking lot from the town hall, a white-steepled church drew a crowd about as large as Huntsman’s, and a more vocal one: Old-time hymns filtered out of the slightly cracked windows. True, the 21st century is as ugly in New Hampshire as it is everywhere else in the country — strip malls, suburban sprawl, small-town kids aping ghetto manners — but there is a little bit of that sweet, weird, old America alive there, too. One senses that beneath the sweat pants and gimme caps and overfed exteriors there persist the bones of a people who still take seriously that whole “Live Free or Die!” business, whose ancestors joined the militias, fought at Bennington, and built the ships in which John Paul Jones (not the bassist from Led Zeppelin, the other one) sailed to glory. The small-town charm is not to be underrated: When I asked for directions to the nearest hotel, a local Republican boss, who doesn’t know me from Adam, offered me his spare bedroom — without even asking my name or where I was from.

#page#In New Hampshire, as in Iowa, they don’t feel confident that they can vote for a presidential candidate they haven’t shaken hands with once or twice; at the very least, they want to have watched him eat a few pancakes. They got their look at the man from Utah. There were a couple of very enthusiastic Huntsman partisans in the crowd, but there was more skepticism. “It’s great he came out, and we hope the others do, too,” said one local. “But, president? Well . . .”

Huntsman is not a natural when it comes to working blasé crowds. And thank goodness for that: One of the great pleasures of politics is watching rich and powerful men who are driven by God knows what demons to seek the most powerful office in the history of the world by putting on mufti and stepping gingerly around fresh fertilizer in places like Nowhereville, Iowa, and rural New Hampshire, each doing his best impersonation of a human being. Mitt Romney, an underwear-ironing type who looks practically naked without a crisp-edged pocket square, has been modeling low-rise jeans like some kind of hipster gone tragically awry. Huntsman, in New Hampshire, stuck to the classics: plaid button-down shirt and Levi’s 501s, looking fresh from the shelf (34X32, if you’re wondering: he’s no Haley Barbour).

He took all the questions, his smile a standard-issue political rictus but one that never degenerated into a Michele Bachmann–style jacklighted Bambi panic, keeping an even keel even with the “questions” that inevitably turned into mini-speeches from the political obsessives who turn out for campaign events. He smiled and looked intensely serious when he talked about ending corporate welfare and special tax loopholes for energy companies, and he smiled the same smile and looked just as intensely serious when in the next breath he proposed a whole new raft of corporate welfare and tax loopholes for energy companies in the name of “energy independence,” and if the flat contradiction in claims registered with him or with his audience, it was not apparent. He kept that same smiling intensity up as he mingled and posed for pictures with the locals afterward, with one interesting little tell — the Jon Huntsman fadeaway handshake: As he reaches forward to shake hands, his torso retreats in the opposite direction, one half of his body saying “Howdy, partner!” and the other saying “Eek! A plebe!” It’s a weird little thing he does, though he didn’t immediately slather himself with Purell afterward, as some candidates do.

Huntsman talks like a man who remains confident in his strategy, against all sorts of evidence. “When people get to know me, they like me,” he says. But they don’t. Most of what Huntsman stands for could be (and in many cases should be) incorporated into the platform of any eventual Republican political candidate — the fiscal realism, the clear-eyed view of China, the acknowledgment that abortion and civil unions are social issues of two very different kinds. It’s not the platform. It’s Huntsman. Obama ran as the Messiah, and Jon Huntsman is the Second Coming of Crist. Huntsman’s belief that Republicans just need a little more face time with him before he gets invited to sit at the cool kids’ table is somewhere between wishful thinking and delusion. But such delusions are what presidential campaigns are made of.

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