01/17/2012 02:23 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Huntsman's Honor

Jon Huntsman's withdrawal from the Republican presidential contest is every bit as disappointing as Colin Powell's decision not to run for president in 1995. Then as now, an opportunity to rescue the GOP from its more illogical elements has been lost. Huntsman's failure to gain real traction in the GOP primary says more about the bad taste of the party's base than it says about him. As Michael Brendan Dougherty noted in The American Conservative last summer, Huntsman is not exactly a moderate:

For the past two decades a 'moderate' Republican was one who generally didn't side with his party on three issues: taxes, guns and abortion. Huntsman's record on those [issues as Utah governor] isn't just to the right of other moderates, it is to the right of most conservatives.

However, Huntsman was a pragmatist, something that is held in contempt by the right these days. Dougherty wrote:

[Huntsman] has Barack Obama's 2008 position on gay rights: he is for same-sex civil unions but not marriage. He has John McCain's latest position on immigration: he supports comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens -- conservatives call this amnesty -- but he demands that the border be secured first. Yet the means to do that don't excite him. He told a town-hall audience recently, 'I mean, for me, as an American, the thought of a fence to some extent repulses me, because it is not consistent with ... the image that we projected from the very beginning to the rest of the world.' Huntsman also riled conservatives on some environmental issues. He has praised Nixon's creation of the EPA.

Conservatives loathed Huntsman because he was not a dogmatist, not a self-promoter given to frothing at the mouth about President Obama, not a wingnut peddling conspiracy theories about birth certificates and climate scientists. In other words, he was too normal for the GOP base.

Huntsman may dislike the way Obama currently runs the federal government, but he doesn't hate the federal government itself. His arguments were geared to those who understand that government is not the problem per se, but bad government. In other words, in the GOP primary, he was speaking to people who didn't understand his language and had no desire to learn it.

Huntsman's departure from the race is a viscerally painful moment in American politics. He was the last connection to the Jack Kemp brand of open-minded, optimistic, rational conservatism. Were the term not so obviously tainted, I'd call it "compassionate conservatism."

When I first started paying attention to the politics of the right, I noticed two strains of conservatism. There was the Kemp brand, tolerant, non-judgmental, focused on making appeals to logic and reason, fixated on reaching out to as many Americans as possible -- and there was the Pat Buchanan brand, hostile, cold, contemptuous of anyone who wasn't in the religious and racial majority, fixated on blaming professors, journalists, entertainers, civil rights activists and "unelected judges" for every problem in the world.

I didn't agree with Kemp on everything, but the Kemp brand struck me as more positive, more noble, more reasonable -- the path that the conservative movement and the Republican Party needed to follow in order to truly become America's party. The Buchanan brand was one I couldn't relate to -- it seemed to appeal to those who felt the country started going to hell right after Brown v. Board of Education.

Slowly but surely, the right has moved closer and closer to the Buchanan model, telling everyone who still finds intellectual, political, and moral merit in the Kemp approach to take a hike. Huntsman would have been the nominee had the right hewed closer to the Kemp model; however, in a party and movement heavily influenced by the Buchanan vision, he didn't stand a chance.

The moral merit of the Kemp vision has not diminished... but how can those who believe in the values Kemp and Huntsman embodied compel the GOP and the conservative movement to see the light?