I'm siding with the Prospect's Jamelle Bouie over Paul Waldman on Jon Hunstman's decision to enter the 2012 presidential field. Between his moderate record and Republican primary voters' sharp rightward swing since the Tea Party came along, there doesn't seem to be a viable path for Huntsman to win the GOP nomination. In a primary that will be determined by which candidate can pile the most criticism onto President Obama, Huntsman's willingness to serve the White House as the Ambassador to China will prove toxic. He has a closet of blasphemous policy stances, having called for a regional cap-and-trade system among western states when he was governor of Utah and calling the stimulus plan "too small." As the wave of defeats for moderate Republican incumbents in 2010 illustrated, the current base has no patience for a politician with a moderate take on issues.
Next year's election appears to be a lost cause for Huntsman, but it might position him as an ideal Republican for 2016. Running five years after his defection from the Obama administration will be seen as significantly less damaging. And though his moderate views on social issues is currently out of step with the opinions of Republican primary voters, that dynamic could change over the next five years.
Take his stance on LGBTQ civil rights. The Salt Lake Tribune has an extensive recap of his take on the issue, explaining how his friendship with one man lead Hunstman to support civil unions for same-sex couples. He may not support same-sex marriage, but his willingness to allow any legal recognition for LGBT couples puts Hunstman to the left of the 2012 Republican crop. It is also a position that is increasingly accepted among Republicans -- especially younger voters. A recent poll showed that in today's Republican Party, only 48 percent oppose any legal recognition for same-sex couples; 12 percent support same-sex marriage; and 39 percent favor civil unions. Younger voters are particularly supportive of these rights; Republicans under 30 support some form of legal rights at a 56 percent rate. In five years time there will be fewer old voters desperately opposed to civil liberties, and a new class of young voters likely to continue the current trends will have reached voting age.
So why run now instead of sitting things out until 2016? Hunstman has never been a major player on the national scene beyond his appeal to the party elite, so he needs to get his name out before most voters would consider supporting him. A run now allows him to introduce himself so that people will be familiar with his name from the get-go the next time around. The Republican primary tends to reward politicians who have already tried one presidential run (that's the only reason Mitt Romney is discussed as the frontrunner for 2012), so as long as Huntsman puts up at least a respectable showing in the 2012 nomination he will be discussed by the chattering class as one of the early contenders for 2016.