Nobody’s Candidate

The media might love Jon Huntsman, but it’s less clear that Republicans do.

Jon Huntsman

The media create and the media destroy. Jon Huntsman announced his presidential bid to the kind of hype once reserved for a Pink Floyd reunion or a LeBron James signing—six months of giddy speculation kicked off by one interview in Newsweek. He picked Liberty State Park as the venue for his speech; Politico ran a double-bylined story about the park. Huntsman arrived at the park. The reporters outnumbered the supporters, easily.

Then Huntsman started talking. He stopped being the candidate of myth and hype and not-quite-viral videos. He was a ski instructor-handsome former governor of Utah with immaculate hair and very little to say. His fresh hook: “I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the office of president.”

On Tuesday, Fox News gave him three minutes and then cut to analysis. MSNBC found another feed just as quickly. UVA’s Larry Sabato consulted the Totem of Conventional wisdom and rendered judgment: “Bland, uninspiring speech. Must ramp up quickly.” Reporters on-site noticed that Huntsman walked right from the podium to an interview with Sean Hannity, which for Republican candidates is like diving into a pool of throw pillows. They tweeted about the misspelled name on their credentials, about the staged flags that blew the wrong way, about the fact that someone forgot to fill in the real details about his headquarters, unless it’s really 123 Main Street, (123) 456-7890.

This is trivial, but it means more for Huntsman than it means for any of his 2012 rivals. Huntsman 2012 is a joint production of the political media and the fun wing of the GOP’s consultant class. (His chief strategist is McCain veteran John Weaver, who made a hobby of criticizing McCain’s negative turn in 2008; his adman is Fred Davis, who made sure you knew Christine O’Donnell was not a witch.) There is no Huntsman groundswell. There was no Draft Huntsman movement. One metric to show this: He has about 5,000 Facebook fans. A reasonably busy senator has that many. The wildly ignored 2012 contender Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, has more than 120,000 fans. True, Huntsman’s team cleverly secured a second-place showing in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. When that result came down, my colleague John Dickerson heard only two hands clapping.

So where did Huntsmania, such as it is, even come from? Huntsman’s appeal to the national political press grows out of the months between the election of Barack Obama and the announcement, in May 2009, that the president would make him his ambassador to China. Reporters (and Democrats) were taken aback by how quickly, and how deeply, Republicans dug in to oppose Obama. Every House Republican voted against the stimulus; Republican governors jumped up and down to criticize the spending and say which chunks of it they wouldn’t take.

So the antidotes to Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin were Arnold Schwarznegger, Charlie Crist, and … Jon Huntsman. He’d just won re-election by a landslide—still a kind of feat for a Utah Republican—and he was happy about taking stimulus cash. He thought the spending bill could have been bigger. He thought congressional Republicans were “inconsequential.” His party was calling the president a socialist, and Huntsman was calling them nuts. (Weaver prefers “cranks.”) He expanded SCHIP in his state. He supported civil unions. The press saw the GOP’s future, and it spoke Mandarin.

We can say this for Huntsman: He’s in better shape than Schwarzenegger or Crist. Going to China removed him from two years of politics that transferred ownership of the Republican Party from George W. Bush to Jim DeMint. All of that makes him more appealing to the media than ever. And he plays the media brilliantly, which would seem like a better qualification for the presidency if the last guy who did it weren’t looking so weak right now.

The new Huntsman, so far, is a stem cell. When faced with a question, he adapts and offers precisely what no one else is offering. (No one that the media take seriously, I mean—no disrespect to fans of Ron Paul, who have to watch a candidate with approximately one-tenth as much support in the polls hog all the attention.)

Romney and Pawlenty are slow to criticize the war in Afghanistan? Huntsman will go there: “We must manage the end of these conflicts,” he said in his announcement speech, which comes right when polls say most Americans want out and when the Obama administration is 24 hours away from announcing some withdrawals.

Romney and Pawlenty squirm when the Ryan plan comes up? Huntsman doesn’t: He says he’ll vote for it.

Jim DeMint says he won’t back any candidate who doesn’t back a Balanced Budget Amendment? Huntsman will back a Balanced Budget Amendment, because “every governor in this country has a balanced budget amendment.” (Very few states have defense budgets, though.)

Twenty percent of Americans won’t back a Mormon candidate? Huntsman is merely “proud of my Mormon roots” with a relationship to the church that’s “tough to define.”

That last Huntsmanism might be the most blasé thing a modern candidate has said about his church. In context, it looks like incredible adaptability. That skill can last for a while—again, ask Barack Obama—but in New Jersey Huntsman found himself saying what every other Republican says. All he added was that lede-ready layer of niceness. There was none of the pragmatism or praise for government policy that marked Huntsman’s six month career as an Acceptable Republican. The closest we got was something about “reestablish[ing] what it means to be a teacher in society,” which could easily be a plug for Michelle Rhee. Instead of the Huntsman who provided cover for Democrats, we heard the philosophy of those people he used to call “inconsequential.”

“We must make hard decisions that are necessary to avert disaster,” said Huntsman. “If we don’t, in less than a decade, every dollar of federal revenue will go to covering the costs of Medicare, Social Security and interest payments on our debt.” How to avert it? “We must make broad and bold changes to our tax code and regulatory policies” and “seize the lost opportunity of energy independence” and remember that “fiscal responsibility and economic growth” are two great tastes that go great together.

Is that it? The White House needed someone like Huntsman in those first surprisingly stormy months of 2009. The GOP’s primary voters aren’t so needy.