What is so wrong with Jon Huntsman?
I mean, other than the fact that more than three and a half months after declaring himself a candidate for president, the ex-governor of Utah and former U.S. ambassador to China is barely a kernel in the Republican primary field? In fact, Huntsman has only recently won 2 percent in three separate polls, thus narrowly escaping elimination from CNN's next debate, on October 18.
Maybe he's just godawful at running for president — a perfectly legitimate deal-breaker, so long as leading America involves convincing Americans. Apart from a widely derided campaign launch at the Statue of Liberty, Huntsman has made no news. He has raised little money from anyone but himself. And while it's hard to assess the quality of his retail campaign from where I sit in Ireland, having recently had to move the whole operation lock, stock, and barrel to New Hampshire can't be a good sign.
One might disagree with how Huntsman connects the dots on any given foreign policy issue — but at least he knows where the dots are.
Then again, the candidates who do have the profile, the money, and the "wow" factor seem to have excited nothing in the GOP electorate so much as a desperate desire to draft someone new. Under the circumstances, it seems worth suggesting to Republican primary voters that there's a guy already in the race who might be worth at least a look. Why?
1. He's not crazy. No offense to militant creationists, deniers of global warning, slavery revisionists, vaccine-conspiracy theorists, and the like. But for Republicans to nominate someone who either fits such descriptions or thrives on darling status among those who do is to hand many independent voters right back to Barack Obama.
2. He's not Romney. As David Frum has pointed out, there are much worse things for a Republican candidate to be right now than Mitt Romney. In fact, in my opinion, the most likely scenario is that the field settles, the extremes start making voters nervous, they end up nominating Romney, and he either beats Obama or comes close. That said, an unsettling number of primary voters have still not warmed to their frontrunner. Theoretically at least, Huntsman can still appeal to those who like Romney the moderate, but don't like Romney the man.
3. He speaks fluent foreign policy. Politically, this is actually probably more bad news for Huntsman. After ambassadorial stints in Singapore and Beijing, it will be hard for him to woo the many voters who seem to find it downright un-American to know anything about anyplace other than America. But for those who accept that, for good or ill, other nations affect our own, it might be ill-advised to cut out the only candidate with serious first-hand knowledge of international relations. Huntsman is not someone who served a drive-by ambassadorship. Factoring in his time as U.S. trade representative and as an Asia-focused trade official at the Department of Commerce, he's spent a significant part of his life developing a very practical acquaintance with just what a tricky proposition it is to protect American jobs while expanding American markets, avoiding avoidable American military crises, and assuaging American public opinion. Perhaps this is why he is so much worse than his opponents at implying that all this can be achieved by slogan.
Clearly, experience does not confer infallibility. One can agree or disagree with how Huntsman connects the dots on any given issue, such as in his call for an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or against the recent NATO intervention in Libya. But he does seem to know where the dots are.
4. He's not swearing on a stack of Bibles. This brings us to one of the most chronic and confounding ironies of American politics: To run for president is to seek a job that has defied the preparation of anyone who has ever held it, and in which the limits of one's power, on any given day, will be dictated by variables from the composition of the Congress to the speed of winds gathering over the Gulf of Mexico to the anxieties of soccer moms in suburbia to the price of grain in Tunisia. Yet candidates routinely seek — and get — political credit for promising absolutely, positively to do X and not to do Y, no matter what. This is idiotic. At various points, the Republican candidates have variously sworn themselves to investigate gays, lesbians, and transgenders; to forbid gay marriage; to oppose revenue-requiring anti-climate-change legislation; to slash government regulation; and most famously, at the customary behest of conservative activist Grover Norquist, to oppose any and all tax increases. By contrast, back in June, Huntsman pledged not to take any pledge on any issue. For that alone he deserves to stay alive through South Carolina at least.
5. He probably does ride that Harley. To be honest, I am loath to posit this one as a plus. For me, Huntsman's whole "motocross Mormon" thing has gotten tired already, and I need no further convincing that the former governor is also a former rock-band member who knows from Nirvana. But what bodes well for his candidacy, if it can somehow gather steam, is that Huntsman clearly grasps the idea that he cannot win without seeming plausibly normal. For a teetotal, Mandarin-speaking son of a billionaire, that means no chess, no Mahler, no tai chi. But bikes could be just the thing.
None of this is to say that Huntsman should be the next president. But it seems awfully early to conclude that he shouldn't.