Jon Huntsman's 'Reasonable Man' Scam

09/08/2011 01:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

For most of the year, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had a difficult time getting anyone interested in his campaign. The campaign's build-up -- which seemed more like a performance art piece than an actual political candidacy -- climaxed in an enervating announcement in front of the Statue of Liberty. Since then, he's mostly managed to win the war of glossy magazine profiles, but remained stuck in the low single digits in the polls and out of the media spotlight.

That changed on Aug. 18, when Huntsman (or someone with access to Huntsman's Twitter account) took a shot at new entrant Rick Perry and his climate denialism. The tweet read, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

The press went nuts. And suddenly, Jon Huntsman was sort of a semi-big deal again. So Huntsman began a sustained campaign of milking that moment, adopting a new identity as "Jon Huntsman: The Guy Who Likes Science." These seeds -- long planted by Huntsman's campaign manager John Weaver, who famously called the rest of the GOP field a "bunch of cranks" -- began to flower, as Huntsman basked in the attention earned by his tweet.

In an Aug. 21 appearance on ABC News show "This Week," Huntsman firmed up his argument, telling Jake Tapper, "Obama is too far to the left, our candidates are too far to the right, and we have zero substance in the debate." He went on to say that adopting an "anti-science" stance was, for the GOP, a "losing position" and a "serious problem." He distinguished himself from the field by saying, "I think when you find yourself at an extreme end of the Republican Party, you make yourself unelectable." In one example, he said that he didn't "know what world" Michele Bachmann's promise to lower gas prices to under $2 a gallon "would come from." He added, "Again, it's talking about things that, you know, may pander to a particular group or sound good at the time, but it just simply is not founded in reality."

And thus we've had the emergence of Jon Huntsman, the Reasonable Man. Which sounds very pretty! But at last night's debate, Huntsman neither stood up for science as a virtue in itself, nor did he courageously stand behind his criticism of the rest of the field.

Let's go to the tape:

HARRIS: Gov. Huntsman, I'd like to get to you. I've got a question. Your chief political adviser has been quoted very prominently as describing the Republican Party as "a bunch of cranks," and said your opponents on the stage "make a buffet of crazy and inane comments." I'm sure that's insulting to some of these people up here. We're now here face to face. Tell us which one of these people are saying crazy or inane things.

HUNTSMAN: Well, I'm sure you have John Weaver's telephone number. You can go ahead and give him a call.

Does the Huntsman campaign not speak with one voice on the matter? Is Huntsman not aligned with his chief political adviser? Seems to be an awfully strange campaign, if true. But what happened to the Jon Huntsman from, say, his interview with Tapper? Politico's John Harris was admirably prepared for the dodge:


HUNTSMAN: But let me just say --

HARRIS: Well -- hang on. Let's follow up on that, because you speak for yourself. You yourself have said the party is in danger of becoming anti-science. Who on this stage is anti-science?

HUNTSMAN: Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science. We can't run from mainstream conservative philosophy. We've got to win voters.

But the question was "Who on this stage is anti-science?" Who is the "you" that Huntsman is referring to when he says, "Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said." What happened to the brave truth-teller? The phrase, "We've got to win voters" offers a clue.

HUNTSMAN: We've got to do what I did as governor, when I was re-elected.

Yeah, I'm just going to stop Huntsman right there, to point out that when I heard him say this last night, I was primed to expect Huntsman to explain positions he took as governor, policies he enacted as governor, stances he defended as governor and perhaps even results his pro-science positions and policies and stances achieved during his tenure as governor. I sort of thought that Huntsman was going to make the case for being the pro-science Republican.

Well, he sort of did, but not in the way I expected:

HUNTSMAN: We've got to do what I did as governor, when I was re-elected. We reached out and we brought in independents. I got independents. I got conservative Democrats. If we're going to win in 2012, we've got to make sure that we have somebody who can win based upon numbers of the math that will get us there. And by making comments that basically don't reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off.

Ahh, so, the virtue of being pro-science has nothing to do with the value of scientific research and how it shapes public policy. The virtue of being pro-science is that it expands and extends the population of voters to whom you can pander. Huntsman hasn't so much decided that science has value to America as he has decided that supporting science helps Jon Huntsman win elections.

HUNTSMAN: Number two, we've got to have somebody who can lead. This president was successful in getting elected. He can't lead this country. He can't even lead his own party.

Yeah, well, "Call John Weaver for answers" isn't my idea of "leadership," but I digress.

Is there anything to Huntsman's "reasonable man" act, other than a campaign "gambit?" Ross Douthat doesn't think so:

First impressions can be changed, but not without time and effort, and by running for president so soon after branding himself as the Obama White House’s favorite Republican, Huntsman pretty much took himself out of the running for the Perry-Bachmann-Tea Party vote. This narrowed his options for distinguishing himself from the other handsome Mormon ex-governor in the race, and after some halfhearted attempts to get Romney’s right, he seems to have decided (no doubt on the advice of John Weaver, his ex-McCainiac chief strategist) that his only chance at breaking out of the pack is to emulate John McCain’s impressive moderate-insurgent campaign in 2000, which won an upset in New Hampshire by doing exactly what Huntsman is trying to do now: Wooing the media and moderate Republicans by attacking his own party’s interest groups and intellectual blind spots.

But by now, you're probably asking, "What does it matter? Even if Jon Huntsman mainly sees support for science as a means of getting elected, isn't it valuable to have someone on that stage, calling out extremes, if only marginally courageously?"

Well, let's allow Huntsman some credit for identifying some very real "intellectual blind spots." And let's allow that we shouldn't begrudge the man the media opportunities he can harness from becoming the guy known as the candidate who attacks the field for extremes. But what has Huntsman done with all of the media attention he's earned? Well, on the more salient issue of the day -- the economy -- he's used the spotlight to send a very clear message to voters: I agree with and embrace the policies of my rivals, who I painted as extremists just a few minutes ago.

Let's recall that when the GOP field was asked to raise their hand to indicate whether or not they'd reject a deficit deal that involved a ratio of $10 in cuts to $1 in revenue, Jon Huntsman stood on the stage with that "bunch of cranks" with his arm in the air. Along with Bachmann, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, Huntsman backs eliminating the capital gains tax. Actually, to be more accurate, that's a position he switched to, in alignment with the candidates he labeled as extreme only recently.

Huntsman's economic plan is not materially different from Mitt Romney's -- of whom Huntsman said, to Tapper, "You know, if we were to talk about his inconsistencies ... we'd be here all afternoon." What is Huntsman's economic plan? Essentially, it's tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts for corporations, massive deregulation, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank and energy production through drilling in America and offshore. What is Romney's economic plan? It's tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts for corporations, massive deregulation, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, energy production through drilling in America and offshore. What does the rest of the field support, generically speaking? They support tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts for corporations, massive deregulation, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, energy production through drilling in America and offshore.

Huntsman is attempting to draw distinctions between Romney and himself all the same. He's getting an assist from the editors of the Wall Street Journal, who have comically strained to suggest Huntsman's identical plan is somehow superior to Romney's just because they all dislike Romney so much. And in campaign ads, Huntsman has gone to great lengths to play up the fact that his job-creation record is "#1" while Romney's record is "#47." But what's the relevance of their past performance if, in the future, they're both just going to pursue the same policies? Is Huntsman suggesting that the economy just likes him better than Romney? Or that he has some sort of magic power that allows him to do the same thing better? Because that does not sound like the sort of thing a Man of Science would say.

So does it matter that Huntsman has staked out a nominally reasonable position on climate change science? It's certainly nice -- 'twould be nicer still if he could enunciate the policy choices he'd make, having backed the scientific consensus. But the only reason he's attacked his opponents as extreme is so that he can garner some attention from the media. And the only thing he's done with that attention is use it to constantly remind voters that he's not all that different from the "extremist" candidates that, thus far, they prefer to Jon Huntsman. I'll grant you, this is a clever and subtly executed racket, but it's a racket all the same. As someone named Jon Huntsman once said, it's contributed "zero substance to the debate."

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