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Jun 27 2011

The curious candidacy of Jon Huntsman

I have been paying only the most superficial attention to the specifics of the race for the Republican presidential nomination because it is far too early in the process for it to serve as anything other than fodder to fill the inexhaustible appetite of television and the blogosphere for content-free political speculation.

But I have been intrigued by the entry into the race last week of Jon Huntsman, former two-term governor of Utah and until last month US ambassador to China. It is not because he brings anything new and exciting as a candidate. He seems to be pretty much the standard-issue rich, middle-aged, white, male, cautious, politician. As such, he seems to have nothing to distinguish himself from an already crowded field of people with much greater name recognition. So why enter a race in which he has such little chance of winning?

On the surface of it, Huntsman has many formidable obstacles to success. One is that he is a Mormon, always a problem for the evangelical Christian base in the Republican party. A recent Gallup poll says that 20% of Republicans would not vote for a Mormon for president. (The figure is 27% for Democrats). The other is that he was appointed as ambassador to China by Barack Obama, the first Kenyan-born-and-raised Muslim socialist who seeks to create a fascist dictatorship in the US, starting by having the government take over the health care system and instituting death panels to kill off the sick and elderly. Or so many of the Republican party faithful seem to think. Being willing to serve in the administration of the anti-Christ would seem to be a serious drawback.

But despite those obvious negatives, Huntsman came second in a recent straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans even though he did not personally attend and it was held before he had formally declared his candidacy. This surprised observers and there were charges that Huntsman’s advisors had paid people to show up and vote for him. Ron Paul came first and Michele Bachmann came third in that same straw poll, which tells you something about the mood and views of the attendees at that event

But in addition, while Huntsman is your standard Republican pro-business, lower-taxes, anti-abortion candidate, he has refused to sign the anti-tax pledge and also has views on climate change and civil unions that are anathema to the party faithful, as can be seen in this interview with Time magazine:

Can you talk a little bit about how you came to favor civil unions for gay couples?

I’ve always been in favor of traditional marriage and thinking that you open Pandora’s Box when you start to redefine it. But we’ve had friends who are gay and we’ve heard horror stories [about hospital visitation and legal rights], and I thought it was an appropriate time.

You also believe in climate change, right?

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community – though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

He thinks gays deserve to have some legal rights? He respects science and the professionals behind the science? That’s crazy talk. These are heresies in the current Republican party climate and are likely to doom his candidacy. But it has served to make him a favorite of the media who are fawning over him the way they did over John McCain in the days when McCain successfully wore his mask as a ‘maverick’. Now that it has been stripped away revealing him to be nasty, vindictive, and cranky, the media needs a new person to hail as ‘serious’, and ‘willing to rise above partisan politics’, which are the media’s designated desirable qualities. The way one shows those qualities is by occasionally taking a position that is against one’s own party. The risk of this strategy on the Republican side is that the more the media likes you, the more suspicious the party’s base is of your commitment to their causes, so convinced are they of the absurd idea of the media as liberal.

Huntsman seems like a smart man so why is he choosing to enter a race when it seems like certain defeat? The answer may be that he is treating the 2012 election as merely a stepping stone for the real prize, the 2016 nomination.

Next: The 2016 strategy

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