Peterborough, New Hampshire—As the Republican Party continues its mad dash rightward, it’s good, if at times difficult, to remember that not every Republican has been swept along. Such Republicans haven’t been much in evidence in Iowa of late, but they were out in force in New Hampshire last night at a town hall for Jon Huntsman, whose platform makes clear he knows the radical right’s words but whose attitude is that of one who plainly refuses to learn the music.
Speaking one hour before the Iowa caucuses commenced, Huntsman directed barbs at both Republicans and Democrats. What was notable was that the crowd—several hundred well-heeled and –coiffed GOPniks and independents—responded chiefly—actually, only—to the barbs directed at their own side.
The country suffers, Huntsman argued, from two deficits, one fiscal, the other of trust. Huntsman isn’t much of an orator—he repeatedly sets up the basis for an attack, then can’t deliver the zinger—and his tales of the horrors that flow from fiscal deficits left the crowd silent. Then he turned to the deficit of trust, which has afflicted virtually all our major governmental institutions. He cited some of them; again, no response. Then he said that Congress had just an 8 percent approval rating. “Everyone knows that Congress needs term limits,” he said. Suddenly, the crowd erupted in cheers. He didn’t say “the Democrats in Congress.” He just said “Congress.”
Then he attacked President Barack Obama for refusing to deal with hard issues, for not accepting, for instance, the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. He waited for applause. There was none.
Plainly, the Republicans of Peterborough were angrier at Eric Cantor than they were at Obama.
Huntsman attacked corporate welfare. They cheered. He attacked Wall Street and the growth of our biggest banks, the banks too big to fail. (“Capitalism without the risk of failure is not capitalism,” he said.) They cheered again. “I’m not going to pander,” he continued. “I’m not going to sign those silly pledges, like every other Republican.” They shouted from the rafters. These were not Grover Norquist Republicans.
Huntsman’s proposals come straight out of the right wing’s playbook. In explaining why he’d endorsed Paul Ryan’s proposal to gut Medicare, and why he supported major changes to Social Security, however, he added in passing that these were problems caused by people living longer “thanks to science, which I believe in, by the way.” The aside drew whoops from a crowd apparently angrier at the dumbing-down of their party than the growth of the welfare state, though they didn’t like that, either.
Like Mitt Romney and like Rick Santorum in his very effective sort-of-victory speech last night, Huntsman placed major emphasis on restoring American manufacturing. “I want to be the president who presides over a manufacturing renaissance in America,” he said. But like Romney and Santorum, Huntsman was fuzzy at best when it came to explaining why manufacturing had dwindled—the Republican analysis focuses on regulations driving up costs, not on corporations offshoring work to cheap-labor climes. Neither the Republicans nor Obama seem inclined to question the trade policies that fostered offshoring, much less learn from Germany how to retain and upgrade manufacturing while still paying workers a decent wage.
What are Huntsman’s chances in the primary here next week, on which he’s staked his entire campaign? Currently, he’s running third, about 5 points behind Ron Paul and 30 points behind Romney, though Santorum is sure to surge here in the next couple of days. With the Newtster plainly determined to stay in the race for the sole purpose of bringing Romney down, Huntsman may just hang on in hopes of picking up the pieces if Romney starts to crumble. Programmatically, he’s in tune with the Republican right, but he has absolutely none of the rage at Obama, liberalism, multiracialism, and modernity that most Republicans still consider the sine qua non for any serious Republican nominee. More problematic yet, Huntsman’s base, if the Peterborough crew is at all representative, does harbor rage, but it’s directed at the yahoo right that’s brought their party down. Bridging that gap seems well beyond Huntsman’s political capacities, which puts the nomination correspondingly out of his reach.