Is Jon Huntsman the Future of the Republican Party?
The former Utah governor will almost certainly never be the GOP nominee. But someone like him will be soon.
We here at OTB have spilled a lot of pixels already on Jon Huntsman, the major Republican candidate for president least popular among Republicans. But the former Utah governor’s comments to Politico‘s Jonathan Martin (“Trailing in New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman takes the long view”) reveal the real strategy behind the seemingly Quixotic run.
Huntsman already is sounding like someone taking a longer view of his own presidential fortunes and the political party he’s always called home.
In an interview Friday, the Utah governor turned China ambassador said bluntly that the GOP had lost its equilibrium in the Obama era but predicted it would eventually return to its bearings — and vindicate his own brand of pragmatism.
“I believe in the ideas put forward by Theodore White, the cycles of history,” Huntsman told POLITICO. “I believe we are in one such cycle. I think that cycle ultimately takes us to a sane Republican Party based on real ideas.”
Suggesting that the GOP currently is something other than sane isn’t the best way to win the support of Republican voters and may stir speculation that he’s preparing to launch a third-party bid. But Huntsman increasingly appears less focused on the political landscape of 2012 and more fixated on what his party will look like post-Obama — and what role he could have in it, come 2016.
Citing the cyclical theory of American political history — he’s confusing White for historian Arthur Schlesinger — Huntsman said the GOP’s transition away from its current moment of conservative purity may take years. ”[It’s] hard to know, but cycles never come about quickly, there’s an arc to them,” he said when asked when the Republican Party would shift. “But I suspect that what I’m talking about now and what I am putting forward as remedies for the economic deficit and for the trust deficit ultimately will be the core of our Republican Party — a governing majority.”
He adds: “It could be this time it could be two, three, four years from now — it’s hard to know.”
In a Twitter conversation Friday with Matt Duss and Dave Roberts, I observed, “I hold out small hope that Huntsman represents what the GOP could become again. Very small hope.” Apparently, so does Huntsman.
It seems fanciful right now, I know. The Republican Party seems to be dominated by an alliance of religious extremists and warmongers. It’s a longstanding trend but one that captured the leadership of the party only with the 2010 elections.
Ronald Reagan, the great hero of the modern GOP, was perhaps the origin of the problem. He was a master of rhetoric and whipping up the crowds with red meat. While Richard Nixon helped start it, it was Reagan who cemented the coalition between anti-Communists and Southern white evangelicals. The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire; anti-Communist rebels everywhere could count on American support (the Reagan Doctrine); and abortion, school prayer, and Family Values–with the implication that Democrats were baby killers who didn’t love Jesus– were central to political campaigning.
The difference, though, is that Reagan fundamentally understood the difference between campaigning and governing. While he continued Red baiting, he immediately seized the opportunity to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the threat of thermonuclear war and generally ratchet down tensions between the two superpowers. While he continued flogging Jimmy Carter, Teddy Kennedy, and other Democratic villains in campaign speeches, he did so while working with Tip O’Neil and other Democratic leaders to get as much of his agenda passed as possible–and willingly compromised away the parts that he didn’t have the votes for. And, while abortion remained part of his stump speeches, he understood that the combination of a Supreme Court that held it to be a fundamental Constitutional right and a Democratic House of Representatives meant that it wasn’t worth wasting much political capitol doing anything about it. Ditto, for that matter, school prayer and other hot button social issues of the day.
Over the years, though, the party got captured by the people Reagan’s speeches were aimed at. Long people at the margins of American politics, they took over the grass roots of the Republican Party. Typically, Republicans had turned to candidates who had successful careers in some other business and then entered elective politics running for major offices: Congress, state governorships, or the US Senate. Indeed, one reason Democrats had dominated the House for decades was that they had a much stronger grass roots of candidates who had come up the hard way, through the school boards, county commissions, state legislatures, and so forth. That started to change, especially in the South and rural areas, with evangelicals taking over local school boards and running candidates for those low level offices Republicans had previously eschewed.
Over time, then, the Republican candidate base began to shift from the Chamber of Commerce types who had dominated the elite level of the party for decades to this new crop of ideological true believers. Beginning with the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, they emerged in force in national politics and became the feeder system for not only the House but also the Senate and governorships. And, eventually, the presidency.
Thus far, they haven’t quite taken over the very top of the party. At the presidential level, they’ve still nominated the likes of Bob Dole, George W. Bush (who seems extreme in hindsight to some, but is considered a RINO by most Tea Party types), and John McCain. Currently, Mitt Romney is the frontrunner for 2012 but it’s not inconceivable that social conservatives could rally against Rick Santorum and put him over the top. At the congressional level, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are traditional Republicans ideologically–albeit pushed to scorched earth tactics politically by a caucus that they can barely control. But Eric Cantor and Jon Kyl are knocking at the door.
It’s pretty obvious to dispassionate observers that the trend of the last twenty years or so is unsustainable if the GOP is to remain a nationally competitive party. Cultural and demographic changes are such that relying on Southern whites and a social message stuck in 1980 will mean permanently ceding the White House and the Senate to Democrats. While Ron Paul-style isolationism will never appeal to a majority of Americans, neither will perpetual war. While safeguarding our borders and enforcing our laws will remain popular, policies and rhetoric that come across as anti-Hispanic will not. And, as the younger generation supplants the older one at the ballot box, anti-gay, anti-science talk will come across as positively alien.
Now, while I happen to like Huntsman and would prefer him over all the candidates running this year, he’s almost certainly never going to be the Republican nominee. He’d make an excellent prime minister but he doesn’t have the campaign chops to come out on top in our presidential nominating system and wouldn’t even if the Republican nominating electorate were more moderate; he’s just not very charismatic on the stump. (True, that was also true of George H.W. Bush, the last Republican nominee in the Huntsman mold. But he likely wouldn’t have gotten the nod if he hadn’t been Reagan’s obvious successor.)
Whether someone like Huntsman will be the Republican nominee in 2016 depends almost entirely on what happens these next ten months. If Romney wins the nomination and loses to Obama–both of which seem likely right now–then we’ll likely see a swing to the right in 2016, as it would reinforce in the nominating electorate the notion that nominating moderates is a recipe for disaster. If Romney wins the nomination and beats Obama, he will, barring tragedy, be the nominee in 2016 and 2020 will proceed along something like the current path, with no lessons being learned.
The only real way to speed up the learning curve–and it might take two presidential cycles even then–would be if Santorum were to get the nomination and then lose in an Electoral College landslide to Obama despite a down economy. Were that to happen, it would be hard for the base to tell themselves that they got beaten because they didn’t get behind a Real Conservative. But the base itself would have to transform for them to rally around a Huntsman type in 2016. Nominate another Santorum type in 2020 and lose the White House a fourth straight time, though, and reality would have to set in.