Huntsman '16: Catch the Fever

When he first got into the presidential race, I assumed Jon Huntsman was playing a long game. In the 2012, Tea Party-dominated Republican Party, a guy who had worked for the Obama administration and who, though ideologically conservative, was not inclined to treat anyone who disagreed with him as a despicable socialist demon worthy only of spittle-flecked contempt, had no chance of winning, a fact he surely must have understood. So one reasonable path was to run a respectable campaign, watch Mitt Romney lose in the general, and prepare for a strong race in 2016, when conditions would be more favorable. After all, Republicans typically have to run multiple times before they get their party's nomination. In the last four decades, the only Republican who got the nomination on his first try was George W. Bush (and Gerald Ford, but he was president at the time). So it seems like a sensible plan.

But there's one hitch: In order for Huntsman '16 to have any chance, the party is going to have to move to the center between now and then or at least be open to somebody who is neither a fire-breather like this year's other also-rans, nor the kind of panderer who will gladly don an entirely new set of ideological robes if that's what the base seems to want, as Romney has done. So: If Romney loses in November, what are the chances that the party would be open to someone like Jon Huntsman four years from now?

The answer, I think, is that the odds are certainly greater than zero, but not very high. If Romney does lose, the prevailing narrative within the GOP will be that he lost because his ideological blood was tainted with the liberalism virus, which he picked up in his time in that hellhole of moral depravity known as Massachusetts. The answer, this story will go, is to have nominees who are pure of heart, Reaganesque in their devotion to the conservative cause. That may be a ridiculous argument, but it will have powerful appeal. After all, nobody wants to think that their losses come from the fact that their ideology isn't appealing to the public. It's much better to think that if your party had just been firmer in its principles, then everything would have worked out better.

On the other hand, moderates can change their party's course every once in a while. In 1992, after three consecutive presidential losses, the Democratic Party was convinced by a moderate Southerner that it had to move to the center, despite the fact that many people in the party hated the idea. Of course, that Southerner was possessed of some unique political skills, and though Jon Huntsman may be a fairly good campaigner, he's no Bill Clinton. Furthermore, in 1992 the Democratic Party was still quite diverse ideologically. Today's Republican Party gets more conservative all the time, and it's hard to imagine that path shifting dramatically. So I wouldn't put too much money on the success of Huntsman '16.

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