Jon Huntsman’s launch of his presidential campaign in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty was supposed to be a not-so-subtle attempt to invoke the legacy of Ronald Reagan. He sees himself as following in the Gipper’s footsteps in that he believes he can rescue the country in much the same manner and style as Reagan did in 1980. But any connection between Huntsman’s shallow ambition and the career of the great communicator is purely coincidental.
The link between Huntsman’s candidacy and Reagan rests on two points.
One is the sunny optimism emanating from Huntsman’s campaign. All of Huntsman’s pre-announcement speeches centered on his love of country and his happy vision of its future rather than on a critique of the Obama administration. Indeed, he has refused to even criticize the president by name.
Huntsman may be as optimistic in his view of the world as Reagan was, but the analogy here is forced. For all of his belief in America as the last best hope of mankind on earth and a city on the hill, Reagan was a stern and consistent critic of liberalism. His legendary standard stump speech wasn’t all Mom and apple pie, as Huntsman’s appears to be. It was also a scathing evisceration of what liberalism had done to America at home and how it had disarmed us abroad. Huntsman may have the same temperament as Reagan had and that’s good thing since, as we have seen with conservatives who adopt the surly, snide Richard Nixon approach to dealing with the press (we’re talking about you, Sarah Palin) the results aren’t pretty. But that didn’t stop Reagan from taking on liberals in a way the mild-mannered and non-ideological Huntsman seems incapable of doing.
Huntsman also appears to be channeling Reagan when he refuses to attack Obama or other Republicans. There’s something to be said for obeying Reagan’s “11th Commandment” about not attacking fellow members of his party and believing you don’t have to be disagreeable when you disagree with your opponents.
But unlike Reagan, a man who loved ideas and was loyal to them, Huntsman is presenting himself to the country as someone who is above ideology. Moreover, he has a “realist” vision of an American foreign policy in retreat that has more in common with Reagan’s opponents than the 40th president’s belief in America’s right and duty to project power and oppose tyranny.
Republicans want their potential candidates to offer a genuine alternative to Obama rather than a civil opponent with a different party label. Huntsman’s campaign guru John Weaver has consciously sought to position Huntsman as a moderate in much the same way John McCain did when he ran for president in 2000. But just as Huntsman is nothing like Reagan, he has just as little in common with a genuine hero like McCain. The former Utah governor seems like a nice guy, but he’s an empty suit when compared with either former Republican leader.