Eulogy for the Unknown Candidate

by Brendan Monaghan

You might have missed this news item from Sunday night, but Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman officially dropped out of his party’s nomination race. If your first response was, “who’s he?” you’re certainly not alone. The former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China under President Obama (wait- did he say “President Obama’s ambassador?”) never cracked 3.5% according to the RealClearPolitics averages. He spent most of his time campaigning either in New Hampshire or in the margin of error. That his campaign outlived both Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann- but never outpolled either- is something of a small consolation, considering his powerful and wealthy pedigree. Pundits and columnists spent Monday morning asking, “what went wrong,” with the Huntsman campaign. Perhaps a better query would be, what went right?

Consider his resume, perhaps the only candidate in the field legitimately overqualified for the office. Huntsman was an ambassador at age 32, an executive for his father’s multinational corporation, twice elected governor, and made ambassador once again- before resigning to run against the man who appointed him. Jon Huntsman, Jr. was not the first Republican ever to serve in a Democratic presidential administration, nor will he be the last. However, his willingness to accept appointment to our most important diplomatic post was a considered a death sentence by Republican voters desperate for a candidate who didn’t fraternize with- or even talk to- the enemy. That he would dare serve under Obama- a man others on stage have hyperbolically described as having an evil, radical, socialist agenda which threatens to destroy the United States itself- made many hardline conservatives question the lifelong Republican’s loyalties. Or, as George Will put it, even Roger Clemens spent two years with the Toronto Blue Jays before moving from the Red Sox to the Yankees.

In debates, Huntsman may well have been invisible. He didn’t make many mistakes- he didn’t lecture or ramble or arrogantly blame the media for his low poll numbers, he didn’t propose outlandish bets or forget a list of three things. He didn’t have memorable lines either, and the ones he floated- breaking out in to Mandarin or cracking a Nirvana reference- went right over the voters’ heads. The passion he found in his very last debate before New Hampshire- emphasis on “Country First”- was too little too late. This failure to distinguish himself from the pack led to a persistent, if not inferred question he was never able to answer: who would vote for Jon Huntsman that wouldn’t vote for someone else?

If a fiscally-conservative, technocratic Mormon governor attracts you, Mitt Romney is an easy choice. If you believe our country’s foreign policy needs a serious and sober reassessment- but not a total evacuation- Newt Gingrich might be to your liking. If you’re pro-life but also pro-civil unions, Ron Paul is right up your alley. As it turned out with exit polling in New Hampshire, however, a majority of people who voted for Jon Huntsman and vaulted him in to a distant third-place finish actually approved of the job Barack Obama was doing as president. Thus, if you support and approve of President Obama, why vote for Jon Huntsman in a general election?

Huntsman didn’t do any favors for himself ideologically either. He simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time (not, however, in the wrong party, as many have suggested). His unorthodox stance for science might have caught the attention of highly-educated centrists, a group completely turned off by the field’s anti-intellectual populism. His rejection of seemingly zany policy pies in the sky and exaggerated, poisoned rhetoric might have won over a few disaffected Democrats. To most others, however, it was seen as directly insulting the conservative base. If elected, he promised to work with Democrats where primary voters wanted to crush them. He glided to a moderate, soul-searching middle where conservatives- with wind at their backs- demanded a march to the right. While conservatives had been looking (some would say still looking) for a candidate who could channel their frustration with the status quo in to rapid, positive change, Jon Huntsman calmly told Republicans not to get excited.

Even his exit speech Monday morning was underwhelming, his endorsement of Mitt Romney tepid, at best. Perhaps this was to be expected as his former (bitter) rival didn’t show up. Huntsman seemingly had nowhere else to go- swearing off a third-party bid, ideologically and personally incompatible with the rest of the field, and unable to bolster his resume or conservative credentials for a future run. To be sure, his support won’t hurt the runaway Republican leader, who stands a very good shot at sweeping through the month of January. However, Huntsman commands no swarms of dedicated supporters who can flock to Romney. After all, this was a man who in South Carolina was trailing Stephen Colbert.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.