The second set of objections to Huntsman 2012 are more conventional. At a time when all the energy on the Republican side is being generated by the tea party, Huntsman is too cerebral, too patrician, and too globalist to affect even a reasonable facsimile of hot-eyed populism. And between that and his apostasies on matters gay and green, he would be simply unacceptable to too much of the party’s base.
Yet the truth is that Huntsman is hardly some kind of flaming, purple-hued centrist. His positions on abortion and gun control are perfectly in line with the orthodoxies of the hard right, and his tax-cutting zeal would stand him in good stead with ardent economic conservatives. More to the point, the Republican nominating electorate, for all the genuine (veto) power of its base, has in the past been willing to tolerate some degree of deviation in its eventual nominees—from George W. Bush on immigration to John McCain on … well, too many issues to list.
It’s true, of course, that this form of toleration has typically been extended to the candidate who is the party’s clear front-runner, which Huntsman is about as far from being at this point as I am. But therein lies a larger point: Who is? By common consensus among Republican elected officials and senior strategists, no one has yet donned the front-runner’s mantle in the race. And no one is clearly “next in line” to be the nominee—a position that usually matters a great deal within the GOP but that in this cycle could be credibly claimed by both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. The field is not only radically wide open but also strikingly weak.
Were it not for these factors, Huntsman’s lack of a national profile would be a larger problem than it is. But in the run-up to 2012, many Republicans believe that someone with the right mix of qualities, especially someone hailing from the ranks of the party’s current and former governors, could come out of nowhere and emerge as the nominee. To put it bluntly: If someone as unknown as Indiana governor Mitch Daniels can be taken seriously as a 2012 contender—and trust me, among a lot of top Republicans, he is—why not Huntsman?
In a way and by an irony, in fact, the Obama administration may have done the ambassador a huge favor. Far from sidelining him, his China posting has given him the sort of foreign-policy credentials about which every governor who wants to be president fantasizes on a daily basis. The administration has put him on the front lines of what is arguably the most important economic and national-security challenge that the country faces and, in the process, put him in direct touch with the CEOs of some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the country—all of whom make it a point to meet with Huntsman when they are in Beijing, and many of whom are said to have come away deeply impressed. And in a moment in America when anxiety over the long-term threat that China poses to our prosperity is running high, Huntsman is ideally positioned to capitalize on that emotion politically by presenting himself as the man who understands the nature of the challenge and what to do about it best.
On top of all that, Huntsman has two other advantages, neither of which should be underestimated. The first is money: With the help of his father, it’s safe to say he would not be lacking for resources, despite what one presumes would be a fairly late entry into the fray. And the second is strategic: Huntsman has long been close to John Weaver, the guru who guided McCain’s outside-the-box campaign in 2000 and who has been thinking long and hard about the need for a candidate who can fuse the party’s competing factions—and, most important, who looks and sounds like the future.
As anyone who remembers Huntsman’s jarringly clumsy speech officially nominating Sarah Palin at the Republican convention in 2008 will tell you, he is by no means perfect. Making the transition to the big stage would be a real stretch for him. But he is also savvy, serious, smart, and sane. All of which is why David Plouffe was right to be wary of the possibility of a Huntsman run—and why any other Republican considering jumping in should feel exactly the same way.