Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign announcement Tuesday qualified as both impressive stagecraft and political curiosity. Huntsman arrived at Liberty State Park in New Jersey accompanied by the most photogenic political family since the Kennedys.
A huge (and seemingly enthusiastic) contingent of reporters were lured to the event in part by a quirky series of Web videos that Huntsman had aired in the days leading up to it. They featured a lone motorcyclist tearing through the rugged mountains of Utah to the accompaniment of winsome country music.
In swapping "On the Road" for "What It Takes," Huntsman poses some fundamental questions — to himself and his party. Like Ronald Reagan in his 1980 general election campaign, Huntsman used the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop. But the location seems a provocation this political season; now more than ever, there is little quarter in the Republican Party for your tired, poor or huddled masses.
Huntsman, 51, is either willfully obtuse or a bolder Republican than we've seen lately. He appears unwilling to pledge fealty to the Christian right, which doesn't trust his Mormonism or his moderate stance on social issues; or to the tea party, which is suspicious of his big-tent Republicanism and his service to President Obama as ambassador to China, a post he resigned earlier this year.
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In a party enamored of unpolished politicians, Huntsman looks the opposite — groomed, refined, composed and to the manor born, which, as the oldest of nine children of a wealthy industrialist, he was. (His father struck it rich inventing the clamshell container for McDonald's hamburgers.) In Portsmouth, N.H., Huntsman's second stop Tuesday, the candidate seemed to be the only one who didn't sweat.
Huntsman's positions are even more incongruous. He has acknowledged the existence of global warming, something that will please climate scientists but repel Republican base voters. He has supported cap-and-trade to slow greenhouse-gas emissions and civil unions for gay people, and he once told a reporter he would be willing to back an individual mandate to fix the health care system. (Lots of Republicans supported an individual mandate before the Democrats adopted one for their health care reform — including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who enacted one. But it doesn't help to be on the record about it.)
In a 2009 interview, Huntsman said Republicans would have to appeal to "the intelligentsia" to be a real party. That's poison to the activists who use "professor" as an epithet. Huntsman is making a point of being civil, saying, "I don't think you need to run down somebody's rep in order to run for the office of president." To Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the shadow leadership of the GOP, such restraint smacks of wimpy accommodation — or treason.
Huntsman joins a Republican field that looks chock full, but isn't. The party continues to search for more appealing candidates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry got a rapturous ovation — replete with chants of "Run, Rick, run" — at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last weekend. Perry, who has flirted with secession and other far-right tropes in recent years, says he will make a decision in July.
Huntsman hopes to satisfy the yearnings of a quieter, more establishment crowd — the sort of moderate Republicans sometimes labeled "extinct." With the brainy governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, opting not to run, the Chamber of Commerce types may conclude that Huntsman is a fine alternative — especially if Romney appears vulnerable (in no small part due to that individual mandate). Huntsman's staff swears he can raise enough money to be competitive in the race.
Huntsman says he has created jobs in the private sector — although his family company created many more jobs in China than in the United States. During his gubernatorial tenure, unemployment in Utah was about 5 percent, which sounds like Valhalla compared with the jobless rate under Obama. On taxes and spending, Huntsman told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he would have supported Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to cut taxes (blowing an even bigger hole in the budget over the short and medium terms) and privatize Medicare.
On foreign policy, he's seemingly mindful of the country's drift toward isolationism, questioning U.S. engagement in Libya, arguing for fewer troops in Afghanistan and laying out a more cautious approach to intervention in general. He says he would cut defense spending, relying on special forces to fight more nimbly (and more cheaply) than tens of thousands of U.S. boots on the ground. A multilateralist, he believes we should identify common interests with allies, reward them when we can and enlist them to advance our cause.
In sum, Huntsman is the kind of moderate, erudite, business-friendly candidate who might have thrilled the Republicans of yesteryear. Looking around, you can see how such an appealing candidate could win the presidency in 2012. You just can't see how he could win his party's nomination.