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

LulzSec ‘retires’

The anarchic hacker group LulzSec that I wrote about just a few days ago announces that it is disbanding. Whether this is a temporary or permanent move is unclear but it is inevitable that similar loose confederations of hackers will form and reform.

The Daily Show looks at the hacking issue.

New York makes the Pope cry

Despite a Republican controlled state senate and opposition from the powerful Catholic Church, gays have won the right to marry in New York state, joining Vermont and the District of Columbia as the only places where this happened legislatively. In four other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire) the change came about because courts ruled that denying gays this right was unconstitutional.

This is major progress in the march for equality for gays, a goal that is undoubtedly going to be attained. Like slavery, denying equality for gays is so manifestly unjust, so lacking in any rational basis, that future generations will shake their heads and wonder how the hell it could have taken us so long to realize that it was wrong.

In the midst of a generally reactionary political climate in the US, we should savor this achievement.

So congratulations, New York!

Peter Falk, 1927-2011

There was something very likeable about stage, screen, and TV actor Peter Falk. Just seeing his rumpled everyman persona appear on the screen made you smile, just as you would when an old friend enters a room. So his death yesterday brought some sadness.

He will be best remembered for his recurring character of Lieutenant Columbo. The TV series was formulaic but in a good way. There was no violence, no car or foot chases, no explosions, just old fashioned storytelling. The beginning showed the crime being committed so there was never any mystery involved. The plot revolved around how Columbo pieced together the sequence of events that resulted in him determining the culprit, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game leading to the capture of the guilty. This focus on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘who’ also solved the problem that besets traditional whodunit TV mystery series which like to cast a well-known guest actor each week because the most meaty guest role is usually that of the villain, which gives away the surprise.

As an added bonus (for me at least) there was also a class element to the Columbo stories. In every episode that I saw, the criminal was very rich and moved in high society and viewed with condescension the disheveled cigar smoker in the worn and grubby raincoat, driving a beat up old car, and alluding to his never-seen blue-collar family and background. The criminals would draw the conclusion that he could not be very smart and that they were safe, and the slow dawning on them that that they had underestimated him and that this befuddled character would be their Nemesis always added a pleasant zest to the ending in which they received their comeuppance.

Republican holy warrior

The ever-entertaining and acerbic Matt Taibbi aims his keyboard at Michele Bachmann. He warns us that even though she is indubitably nuts, treating her as a joke candidate who can be dismissed is a mistake. Here is a small sample from the article which is worth reading in full for the glimpse it gives us at the sorry state of politics today where we have to even pay attention to such a candidate.

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you’ve always got a puncher’s chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she’s built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Bachmann’s entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She’s not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That’s not what Bachmann’s thing is. Bachmann lies because she can’t help it, because it’s a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can’t tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don’t learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you’re a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they’re even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

Fears of religious vandalism limit free speech

A bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively expensive insurance against vandalism from an atheist group that wanted to place an ad on its buses. Apparently they feared that the ad’s message “Are you good without God? Millions are” would inflame Christians enough that they would attack the buses.

A spokesperson for the atheist group draws the obvious conclusion, “The insurance money needed from us basically says CATA [the bus company] and On The Move [the bus company's ad agency] trust the atheists in this community more so than the religious, otherwise the churches that advertise would have that extra insurance premium added to their total cost.”