Commentary Magazine


The Real Reason Huntsman Flopped

It will be a shame when the media’s inevitable postmortem of the Jon Huntsman campaign pushes the meme that he was just too moderate and reasonable for the GOP. That’s because his more “liberal” policies are not the reason he never caught on with primary voters.

On the major issues, Huntsman is a fairly conservative candidate. It’s true that he has deviated on foreign policy, calling for a steep withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. In past cycles, however, this would have been more salient than this year, when other candidates have at least hinted at what Huntsman has made a key component of his platform. His belief in anthropogenic global warming isn’t nearly as offensive to conservatives as the media likes to pretend it is. Regardless of where the majority of GOP primary voters stand on the issue, global warming simply isn’t going to decide who gets the nomination. So why, then, do voters find Huntsman so distasteful?

It has more to do with attitude than anything else. For example, here’s Huntsman’s latest ad:

Romney’s flip-flops? Fair game–and something conservatives have been vocally uneasy about since the beginning of the campaign (actually since the beginning of the 2008 campaign). But the backflipping monkey toy as a visual representation of his party’s leading candidate for president was just a bit juvenile—especially for the candidate whose conservative supporters told us he was the mature candidate.

And then came his daughters’ web video mocking the eminently mockable Herman Cain ad in which campaign manager Mark Block speaks earnestly to a camera close-up about his admiration for Cain and then takes a much-talked about puff of a cigarette. Huntsman’s three older daughters then released their parody of it–in which they are all wearing fake mustaches and blowing bubbles instead of smoke. Here’s a screen shot from it, released by the campaign:

Funny, right? But also kind of… strange. One of the Huntsman daughters told the Washington Post that when her father saw it he “couldn’t stop laughing.” Kevin Williamson’s most recent article for National Review is on the subject of Huntsman’s obsessive quest for cool, and how it somehow keeps eluding him. Williamson writes of Huntsman’s reference to “Stairway to Heaven” at a speech in New Hampshire, which fell flat–much like his reference to Kurt Cobain at a GOP candidates’ debate. Here’s Williamson:

Governor Huntsman is trying really, really hard to ingratiate himself with the cool kids, declaring at every opportunity that when it comes to the cultural fault line that separates Manhattan from Mayberry, Austin from Amarillo, and Berkeley from Bakersfield, Jon Huntsman is more a half-caff soy latte than a bottle of Bud. Even his experience in China, which ought to be his trump card in a field not exactly thick with foreign-policy expertise, loses its luster when refracted through the prism of his vanity: He bragged that he looked forward to addressing the Chinese people in Chinese, he answered one question about China with “Would you like the answer in Chinese or English?” and he basically never passes up an opportunity to affirm that he knows some foreign languages, accepts the standard scientific accounts of evolution and global warming, and is not, you know, a rube.

This gets it exactly right. Huntsman’s problem with GOP voters is that he constantly comes off as the parent who, trying to look cool to his teenage children and their friends, mocks everyone else’s parents. But a presidential election needs the parent, not the overgrown teenager or the 51-year-old trying to recapture his youth. Huntsman is free to use Twitter to taunt his opponents and then not show up for actual face-to-face debates with them, only to taunt them again from a distance to reporters the next day. But GOP voters are clearly not responding to it. And it’s not surprising at all.