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How Jon Huntsman can win in 2016
Get your hands dirty this time, Jon
 
If Huntsman wants to avoid 2012 deja vu, he needs to get tougher.
If Huntsman wants to avoid 2012 deja vu, he needs to get tougher. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last week Jon Huntsman encouraged a little speculation when he said he was "open" to running for the presidency again. After his last showing — in which he didn't even come close to winning a single state in the Republican primary — this announcement did not come with the same breathless fanfare as his last one. Still, I think he should go for it. My advice: Get petty and vindictive.

In the last election cycle I was assigned to profile Huntsman, and I thought I would stick a few pins in him. I wanted to dislike him, in some way. But after following him on the campaign trail and interviewing him at length, my view changed entirely. Hanging around Huntsman had precisely the opposite effect exposure to most politicians has on me; it persuaded me of his merit.

Subsequently, I spent much of the early 2012 primary cycle writing about his ability to create consensus around substantial conservative reforms, his electable persona, and how the GOP and the country could benefit from his realist foreign policy. And for his part, Huntsman ran a brilliant and ultimately victorious campaign to become president of Morning Joe.

The Huntsman presidential campaign was surreal. And worth a review before considering a new one.

He had left a high-profile post in the Obama administration's State Department to make an effort to take his boss' job. That's basically the closest thing to a Game of Thrones plot line that American politics offers. But Huntsman had a legitimate foreign policy beef with Obama over Libya. And if he had embraced it, his first campaign speech could have written itself. "As it did for many Americans," he could have said, "the election of Barack Obama inspired a patriotism in me that was deeper than partisanship, and so I served in his administration. But after being inside, that same love of country demanded that I resign, and it demands that I do everything possible to see him defeated in this election." That would have been a way to explain his story, and to connect it both to the disappointment that independent voters had with Obama and to the dyspepsia of the Republican base. Of course, he said nothing like this.

Instead, while standing in the exact spot where Ronald Reagan had begun his campaign with a paint-peeling speech aimed at Carter, Huntsman promised civility and debuted his charmingly Dadaist campaign video, which encouraged us to admire him for being the kind of Republican who wears a motorcycle jacket. While Republicans wanted a blood fight that Huntsman could have delivered, he promised to have a "difference of opinion" with the sitting president. A difference of opinion can be expressed in a memo; a campaign in a mass democracy has to go bigger.

Despite having the most successful record of conservative governance of any governor in the nation, his big moments in the campaign were advertising his "difference of opinion" with GOP voters. "Call me crazy," he tweeted. The subtext was "I'm calling them crazy" — them being the very voters who might have been attracted to his record on taxes, guns, and abortion.

As governor of deep-red Utah, Huntsman had a record that was always likely to turn out to be a little more conservative than he was. But still, look at that record: He passed several anti-abortion bills, which he should get credit for since he had enough clout to prevent them from hitting his desk. He lowered and flattened taxes. He attracted business to the state, which helped it achieve a low unemployment rate and fast economic recovery. He built consensus in his reforms, even getting the Church of Latter-day Saints to accede to a liberalization of the state's liquor laws. He expanded gun rights. For plugged-in activists on these issues, Huntsman was pretty much a national hero until he worked for Obama.

And so the fundamental divide between Huntsman and the voters in the GOP isn't conservatism as much as it is populism. He embraced the Ryan plan, which others with more conservative reputations treated as too principled to consider. His campaign generated a financial sector reform that was innovative, anti-cronyist, and pro-market.

Huntsman and GOP voters generally agree on policy, but differ on attitude. Huntsman is a co-chair of No Labels, the type of post-partisan project that GOP stalwarts hate, but his co-chair is one of the most conservative Democratic governors (Joe Manchin). Put their records together and you have more conservative accomplishments than "severe conservative" Mitt Romney and CPAC superstar Newt Gingrich. But the substance is obscured by the anti-partisanship.

Huntsman's dislike of Romney, for his phoniness, was palpable when you got close. He also dislikes the Beltway organizations, including the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth, that pose as populist grassroots organizations while fleecing Republican activists in the heartland, and accomplishing nothing within Washington. But, by not embracing his own record of governance, Huntsman risks becoming just as phony as they are.

And for all his moderate temperament, Huntsman has praised the libertarian-leaning firebrand Rand Paul for trying to change the narrative of the party. And he likes Paul Ryan, for taking wonky risks. So, conservative policy doesn't bother Huntsman, phony conservative posturing does.

So why not let that out next time? The Huntsman campaign had one thing that worked well: An opposition research team that could take heads. It was willing to leak on Herman Cain, who was the ultimate populist fraud of the 2012 GOP primary, and even leaked on Mitch Daniels, keeping him out of the race.

Huntsman had the record and credibility to inflict damage on Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and other conservatives from the right and center in these debates. He had a way to look both more serious and more conservative than his opponents at the same time. If he runs again, he should let the little devil on his shoulder speak more. Substance doesn't have to be so prim and civil with raving frauds.

Let the voters know that the GOP primary has too many clowns in the clown car. Call out the conservatives who perform like pitchfork-wielding lunatics in their district, and then dine out with lobbyists and cash checks from widows in D.C. Bash those who talk like revolutionaries year after year, even as they ossify into the least accomplished Establishment in American history.

Ronald Reagan, a divorcé who had liberalized abortion laws in California, told the members of the nascent Moral Majority, "I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you." Huntsman could have a similar moment. He could tell conservatives that he may not reflect their anger all the time, but he won't take advantage of them either. After two terms of exile form the executive branch, parties become bloody-minded about winning. Show them you want it. Throw a punch and mean it.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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