Heilemann: Huntsman’s Piety Cost Him the Primary

Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman arrives at a campaign stop in Eagle Square on January 09, 2012 in Concord, New Hampshire.
Time to exit: Huntsman in New Hampshire earlier this month. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

After a brief but delicious weekend interval in Charleston, South Carolina — which included the interrogation of a vast array of local fare, from tile fish and chicken bog to pork-fat funnel cake and buttermilk pie, as well as the ingestion of some serious God-and-politics talk by Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry — the national affairs desk migrated north this morning to Myrtle Beach, where tonight there will be a Republican debate with one fewer contestant than before.

Yes, as everyone remotely interested in this wretched business is well aware, the campaign of Jon Meade Huntsman Jr. has officially been put to rest. The formal end of the affair took place this morning at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, outside of which a sculpture has been erected that features the faces of the GOP candidates, including Huntsman’s. (The sculptor wasn’t the only one caught off-guard by his departure from the race; yesterday morning, South Carolina’s biggest daily paper, the State, conferred its endorsement on Huntsman roughly twelve hours before word started leaking that he was dropping out — oops!) The sculpture is a kind of makeshift Mount Rushmore, except that instead of being chiseled into stone, it is fashioned out of sand. Which, given the events of this morning, seems appropriate. Indeed, after watching Huntsman offer his parting words, I was tempted to rustle up a pail of water and a rake, and scrub away his visage, Kremlin-style.

The Huntsman exit was orchestrated with restraint, as these things tend to be. The ex-candidate, his wife, and their four daughters (the three well-known Jon 2012 Girls, who brought a welcome dash of glamour and sauciness to the trail, and the 12-year-old adopted Gracie Mei) took the stage in a nondescript meeting room; off to the side sat Huntsman’s obviously hungover campaign staff and his billionaire father, who was wearing a crisp blue suit, a starched white shirt, a fire-engine red tie, and a tan so rich and burnished that it might inspire envy in George Hamilton. Jon Jr.’s speech was brief and by and large both unexceptional and unexceptionable (as these things also tend to be), but there were notes in it that reminded you why his candidacy was, in theory, so appealing — and, in practice, often so annoying.

First, the appealing: Huntsman is a decent and good man, clearly thoughtful and intelligent and moored to reality in a way that few of his Republican rivals were or are — and that showed through as he left the stage. Second, the annoying: Huntsman is also a pious guy, even slightly priggish, and that too-good-for-politics tone was very much in evidence this morning, too, as it was all too frequently during his run.

Consider the way that he opened his speech by decrying the current state of the Republican race, saying it had “degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and this critical time,” calling on the remaining candidates to elevate the tenor of the campaign, and arguing that the “current toxic form of our political discourse does not help our cause.” This kind of high-mindedness might earn approving nods from some voters. But to these ears, it rings more than a little hollow coming from a guy whose super-PAC, Our Destiny, ran ads in New Hampshire that assailed Mitt Romney as a “chameleon” who is “willing to say anything, be anything” to win; and who himself in recent days has said that the front-runner is “completely out of touch,” a “serial flip-flopper” who hasn’t “give[n] us a reason to trust him,” and, in light of his having “talk[ed] about [his] enjoyment in firing people,” is “pretty much unelectable.”

Adding absurdity to hypocrisy, Huntsman this morning endorsed Romney. “I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama,” he said. “Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Governor Mitt Romney.”

No doubt Huntsman was being sincere in this assessment; considering the available alternatives, he’d be crackers otherwise. But the quick endorsement of Romney points to the fundamental phoniness of the criticisms that Huntsman was making earlier. And while phoniness is par for the course in politics, it’s grating to have the glaring falsity coupled with a bunch of sanctimonious sermonizing about how the campaign has become so appallingly debased — as if Huntsman were leaving now because he is superior to it, as opposed to the truth, which is that he is quitting because he got his ass sliced and diced and then handed to him on a platter.

It’s said that Huntsman’s 2012 race was just a warmup for 2016 or 2020. And, hey, who knows? Maybe it’s true — though in my experience, no one volunteers to subject himself to the combination meat grinder–flash incinerator–industrial-grade colonoscope that is a modern presidential campaign if he believes it is just a dress rehearsal.

If Huntsman does plan to make a future White House bid, however, there are lessons aplenty to be learned from his failed effort this time around. The problems with his campaign have been amply and ably documented over the past months: the dearth of money, the lack of rationale, the strange and self-defeating refusal during his announcement tour to identify himself as a conservative (at a time when he was introducing himself to a fundamentally conservative Republican electorate, and when, in fact, he had a record more consistently conservative than his main rival, Romney).

Yet beyond all that, there was a more basic problem: a candidate who seemed to think of himself as superior to the process, love it or hate it, by which we select presidential nominees and elect presidents. As I wrote in a cover story on him and Romney six months ago, Huntsman entered the race sounding more like a diplomat than a politician and acting as if presenting a glittering résumé were enough to claim the big prize. But it isn’t. Hopefully Huntsman understands that now — for it would be a shame for such a smart man to stroll out of the room no wiser than when he ambled into it.

Heilemann: Huntsman’s Piety Cost Him the Primary