Jon Huntsman’s 2016 strategy?

In yesterday’s post I said that Huntsman’s entry into the Republican race did not make much sense in terms of 2012. But if you think beyond the 2012 elections and look to 2016, it may be a smart move. For starters, few outside Utah have heard of Huntsman and name recognition is important in winning elections. By running now, even if he loses, by the time 2016 campaign starts he will be seen as a familiar face. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all had losing runs for the Republican presidential nomination before they later succeeded, and the latter two then went on to win the presidency on their first try.

Furthermore, the first time you enter the national political scene by running for major office, you face a sudden scrutiny of your past life, both personal and professional, that can throw up awkward information that needs to be explained away and distracts from your campaign. Just ask Sarah Palin whose family life and career became the stuff of soap opera. Since the media craves novelty, it is good to get all that baggage out of the way early on when the stakes are not so high, so that it becomes old news by the time the races that really matter come around. So running in 2012 allows Huntsman to see what is the worst that can be thrown at him.

But the most important factor is the general political dynamic at play. The economy is not doing well, unemployment is high, and the nation is draining its resources by waging three increasingly unpopular wars. These factors would normally doom an incumbent president running for re-election. George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 when conditions were not nearly as bad as they are now. But the Republican party is not in a position to take advantage of this prime opportunity because the tea party movement, although it is splintering into factions and is likely to become irrelevant soon, still has enough residual strength to wield veto power over the 2012 nominee and seems determined to want a true believer as the Republican candidate. Bill Clinton was able to win in 1992 by being a political chameleon and seizing the political center (in addition to being aided by Ross Perot’s independent candidacy) but the Republicans now seem determined to only nominate someone whose swears allegiance to a long list of right wing extremist positions.

The supposedly serious elements in the Republican party who have been alarmed at the unserious direction the party has taken seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that the party nomination will go to someone who is either just plain nuts or is not nuts but has to take so many nutty positions to win the nomination that his candidacy is doomed in the general election. This seems to be the fate of Mitt Romney, whom I pick to be the eventual 2012 party nominee based on a simple but reliable political model which is that the candidate with the most money wins.

Obama winning re-election in 2012 may be viewed with horror by the Republican base but not by the oligarchy. The serious elements in the Republican party realize that Obama’s policies on all except some social issues (like gay rights and abortion) are highly congenial to the oligarchy, so they can easily live with him. I see the medium term strategy of the Republican party traditionalists being to concede the 2012 election to Obama and focus on finding someone for 2016. The expected defeat in 2012, especially if it is a rout that drags down Republican candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives, will hugely diminish the influence of the tea party leaving the so-called ‘adults’, currently marginalized, in a position to regain control.

So after the 2012 debacle, expect the Republican party to blame the loss on too much adherence to the tea party agenda and to look for an ‘adult’ to be their next candidate, someone who is anti-abortion (which will continue to remain non-negotiable for the Republican party) but is not locked into an increasingly unpopular anti-gay and anti-science agenda, someone who is pro-business and for lower taxes and will look after the interests of the wealthy but can also appeal to a broader constituency simply by not appearing to be a nutcase. In short, an anti-abortion Republican Obama. Someone like Jon Huntsman.

So based on that rather convoluted analysis, here is my prediction. Most likely Romney will gain the nomination by being a faux loony, being pushed into that losing position by a semi-loony (Tim Pawlenty) and real loonies (all the rest of the current field except Huntsman), and will then handily lose the presidential election. This will be followed in 2016 by the party selecting a more ‘adult’ candidate.

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