Huntsmania -- Catch It!

Ezra Klein asks about John Huntsman's soon-to-be presidential campaign, "Can someone sketch me out an even moderately plausible scenario in which a moderate Republican governor who broke with his party on civil unions and cap-and-trade and then joined the Obama administration wins both the GOP nomination and the presidential election in 2012?" I will rise to the challenge!

It may be that what Huntsman has in mind is a two-campaign strategy. He runs now, gets national exposure, impresses everyone enough, then watches as Mitt Romney or whoever loses the general to Barack Obama. Four years from now, when the natural swing of the pendulum (1988 was the only time either party won a third consecutive presidential term since FDR) makes a Republican win highly likely, he'll be one of the front-runners. After all, the guy is only 50 years old, so he can afford to take a long path to the nomination.

But even if that isn't the case, Huntsman's calculation is probably hinging on a few factors. First, it's true that his work in the Obama administration is a problem. But all the candidates have weaknesses. Is it a bigger problem than Mitt Romney's problem (Romneycare, general phoniness)? Or Newt Gingrich's problem (no one likes him)? Or Sarah Palin's problem (not even Republicans think she's qualified)? It may not be. And Huntsman is the only one with any foreign-policy experience, which would make him stand out a bit.

Second, Huntsman may be counting on a Republican silent majority -- or at least a silent plurality. The Tea Party vote could split multiple ways, leaving a significant chunk of reasonable Republicans looking for a candidate who is good in lots of ways even if he isn't the angriest. Those voters could then form the base on which Huntsman could build. After all, John McCain was nobody's favorite four years ago, but he hung around long enough to take the nomination after all the other candidates failed in one way or another.

Third, Huntsman has plenty of his own money to spend (his father's a billionaire), so that's one practical hurdle he won't have to worry about. Finally, Huntsman may be counting on a general cooling of Republican anger over the next year. If the economy continues to improve, it's possible there will could be a sort of mini-backlash within the party against Palin and the rest of the most extreme element, thereby leaving an opening for him. I doubt this will actually happen, but it's possible.

Is all this persuasive? Eh. If he asked me, I'd probably tell him to sit it out. The point is, though, that the people around Huntsman can make at least a reasonable case for him winning. And if you're the kind of person who thinks you ought to be president, that's often all you need.

-- Paul Waldman

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