Just who is Jon Huntsman? At this stage, he is whatever anyone hopes that he will be. As he prepares to officially join the gaggle of GOP presidential candidates, his campaign strategists seem to have adopted an "all-things-to-all-people" approach: play up his conservative credentials for Republican primary voters while courting general election voters by promoting his media image as the only moderate in the race. A CNN commentator, for example, calls him "the lone standard-bearer of the center-right in a crowded GOP field." Katrina Trinko, a reporter at the conservative National Review Online, sees this all-things-to-all-people approach as a potentially winning strategy:
It remains to be seen whether Jon Huntsman can successfully be all things to all men. But if, by stressing different parts of his record, he can successfully sell himself as a moderate to centrists and a conservative to hard-liners, he could be difficult to beat.
An analysis of Huntsman's record shows that, faced with the reality that he must appeal to the increasingly far right Republican base, he is quickly trying to jettison formerly held "moderate" positions. We agree with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has publicly rejected the notion that Huntsman is a RINO (Republican in Name Only), saying "there's no question he's a conservative."
It's worth noting that many Americans first met Huntsman when he introduced "my friend Sarah" Palin at the 2008 Republican National Convention, exulting that "history will be made tonight!" He praised her strength, tenacity, authenticity and originality, calling her a rebel and a renegade who is "not afraid to kick a few fannies and raise a little hell." Said Huntsman, "We are looking for a beacon of light to show us the way. We are looking for Sarah!"
Huntsman and the Religious Right: Ralph Reed's 'Great Friend'
There are plenty of reasons that former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed recently introduced Huntsman to a group of right-wing activists as "a good conservative and a great friend."
In 2009, Huntsman told a reporter that he has little patience for traditional "culture war" issues, saying "I'm not good at playing those games." That sounds like a promising and refreshing break from the norm of Republican presidential candidates, but in reality he has played those "games" devastatingly well. He made his efforts to make abortion completely unavailable to women a centerpiece of his address to Reed's "Faith and Freedom Coalition" summit:
"As governor of Utah, I supported and signed every pro-life bill that came to my desk," he said. "I signed the bill that made second-trimester abortions illegal and increased the penalty for doing so. I signed the bill to allow women to know about the pain an abortion causes an unborn child. I signed the bill requiring parental permission for an abortion. I signed the bill that would trigger a ban on abortions in Utah if Roe v. Wade were overturned."
Huntsman has also appealed to the public school-hating wing of the Religious Right. In 2007, he signed a statewide school voucher bill that provided up to $3,000 in taxpayer funds for students attending private schools. That was too much even for voters in conservative Republican Utah, who rejected the attack on public education and overturned the plan through a referendum.
At Reed's recent confab, Huntsman also joined the chorus of speakers warning Tea Party conservatives not to abandon social conservatives. The Republican Party, he said, should not focus on economics to the detriment of the fight to make abortion unavailable, saying that would lead to "a deficit of the heart and soul."
Huntsman and the Economic Right: A Full Embrace of the Ryan Budget
Huntsman, who is making his tax-cutting record as governor of Utah a major campaign theme, has praised Rep. Paul Ryan's radical budget proposal as a "very, very good one." Even though Republicans have been abandoning the Ryan plan in droves, Huntsman has said that he would have voted for the Ryan budget if he were a member of Congress. He has specifically embraced the Ryan budget's plan to essentially abolish Medicare, saying the size of the national debt required drastic policy changes. However, unlike some other Republican governors, Huntsman's concerns about the debt did not prevent him from welcoming federal stimulus funds.
He embraces the Tea Party's warnings about the economy and the suggestion that the nation is being destroyed by internal enemies. He says that America is "buying serfdom" with its deficit spending. Invoking Ronald Reagan's 1964 "A Time for Choosing" speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, Huntsman says America is at a crossroads, with voters needing to choose "whether we are to become a declining power in the world, eaten from within, or a nation that regains its economic health and maintains its long-loved liberties."
As governor, Huntsman proposed abolishing corporate taxes altogether; campaigning in New Hampshire recently, he suggested that he would cut federal corporate taxes. The 2012 campaign, he says, will determine whether the nation will endure an economic "lost decade" or "unleash the economic magic."
Moving Right on Climate Change
This month the Salt Lake Tribune examined Huntsman's shift on climate issues. Four years ago, he supported a regional cap-and-trade program, saying, "If we do this right, our citizens are going to have a better quality of life, we're going to spawn new technologies and industries, and we're going to leave our most important belongings in better shape for the next generation." That was then, as the paper noted:
But now, in a political environment rocked by recession and a rowdy tea party, and with Huntsman's eyes on a possible presidential run in 2012, his position has evolved. He's still defending the science of climate change, but he has ditched his support for cap-and-trade.
Given that most of the GOP field is in full denial on climate change, Huntsman has gotten some credit for simply acknowledging reality. "All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring," he told TIME magazine. "If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer, we'd listen to them." But, he says, now "isn't the moment" to deal with climate change.
That led the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen to comment:
This is, in general, the worst of all possible positions. Much of the right believes climate change is a "hoax" and an elaborate conspiracy cooked up by communists to destroy America's way of life. These deniers have a simple solution to the problem: ignore it and pretend there is no problem. Much of the left takes the evidence seriously, is eager to address the crisis, and has a variety of possible solutions to the problem, including but not limited to cap-and-trade plans.
Huntsman apparently wants to split the difference -- he accepts the evidence and believes the problem is real; Huntsman just doesn't want to do anything about it.
To borrow his analogy, Huntsman has heard the collective judgment of 90% of the world's oncologists, but believes it'd be inconvenient to deal with the cancer or what's causing the cancer anytime soon.
Moderate Image, Conservative Reality
Huntsman's moderate image is based in large part on his 2009 endorsement of civil unions for gay couples. Five years earlier, when campaigning for governor, he had supported a state constitutional amendment that bans marriage and "other domestic unions" for same-sex couples. Huntsman's rhetorical shift did not find its way into any policy that offers legal protection for gay couples in Utah; he still opposes marriage equality, calling himself "a firm believer in the traditional construct of marriage, a man and a woman."
Huntsman has taken some heat from far-right activists who cannot tolerate the slightest sign of heresy against right-wing dogma. But former George W. Bush official Michael Gerson thinks Huntsman's moderate media image could actually help him by setting initial expectations low among GOP activists:
The media have often covered Huntsman as a liberal Republican -- a Rockefeller reincarnation. After all, he supports civil unions. He made it easier to get a drink at a bar in Utah. This easy press narrative gives Huntsman an odd advantage in a Republican primary: He is more conservative than his image. For many Republicans, he will improve upon closer inspection.
Huntsman's campaign is just getting under way, but his positioning is already clear. Tell Religious Right activists you're one of them by emphasizing your support for the most draconian anti-choice measures. Tell the Tea Partiers you're one of them by backing Paul Ryan's radically anti-government and anti-middle-class budget. And encourage more moderate Republicans to believe you're one of them by calling for civil discourse and offering rhetorical support for short-of-equality measures for same-sex couples. It's a calculated strategy that might make some sense politically, but it seems unlikely that trying to be all things to all people provides a path to victory through the restrictive gauntlet of the Republican primaries.