Just once, before his run for the White House fizzles, I’d love to see Jon Huntsman turn to a fellow candidate at a debate and launch a curt, "I knew Ronald Reagan — and you, sir"
I won't hold my breath. Huntsman began his political career as a staffer in the Reagan White House. But his nonconfrontational demeanor is the trait that sets him apart from his party's other presidential candidates.
A true diplomat, the two-time Utah governor has the distinction of having served the president he hopes to defeat (as U.S. ambassador to China), another black mark against him to conservative faithful.
Huntsman is of a species in fast decline — the moderate Republican. Their habitat has been trampled under by tea partiers at raucous town hall meetings.
After the 2012 presidential election is over and the postmortems are done, more thoughtful Republicans may rue the day their party turned its back on Huntsman’s brand of diplomacy and obvious appeal to independents.
Huntsman’s problems as a candidate in today’s GOP are pretty obvious. Say his name and most will reply with brief recognition but not much more: “Oh, yeah, the centrist guy. He seems pretty nice.” Unfortunately for Huntsman, the sort of people who are driving the GOP today aren’t into nice, or even civil. Or reflective or worldly or curious or skeptical or pragmatic — all desperately needed in our executive branch and possessed by Huntsman. So before he slips into oblivion, consider the president Huntsman might have been.
First, he would have been uniquely suited to answer the rising challenge of America’s greatest economic — and possibly someday military — rival, China. An Asia expert for George H.W. Bush’s Commerce Department, he served as the ambassador to Singapore. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese and knows a Taiwanese dialect.
Curious, don’t you think? In this era of global competition, few modern presidents have mastered a foreign language. How unlike our nation’s founders. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew multiple languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. (Herbert Hoover also spoke Mandarin.)
This alone sets Huntsman apart from the common run of politicians on the right, who are mulishly proud to be monolingual. It’s an idiotic disposition that flows from the ideology of American exceptionalism. Why should we try to understand the rest of the world, much less a rising power, when we are the Platonic ideal of civilization?
On macroeconomic issues, Huntsman is a tax-cutting, pro-business Republican; he repeats many of the same policy nostrums you hear from the other candidates. But he has no truck with the flat-earth variety of free market ideology beloved of the tea party; he shuns the typical culture war posturing and generally projects an image of the “pragmatic problem-solver” he says he is.
He’s got the Clinton-cool vibe, as a passionate motorcyclist. The Huntsman family of nine looks like Barbie and Ken procreated and then adopted two adorable daughters from India and China just for an added touch of saintliness.
As far as his faith goes, Huntsman is Mormon, but of the “cafeteria” style (to use a coinage often applied to lax Catholics). His wife is Episcopalian. He supports gay civil unions, like most Americans these days but unlike most GOP candidates who hope to have any sway with the party’s fundamentalist base.
In other words, Huntsman would be exactly the kind of president who might restore broad appeal to the Republican Party and actually bring about real bipartisanship. In the event that Perry or Romney is elected president, it’s a sure bet that Democrats will repay the GOP with interest for its combativeness over the previous four years. One might imagine Huntsman graciously sidestepping that unpleasantness.
However, barring some train wreck among the front-runners, we’ll never know what might have been. We’ll have to content ourselves to remember that, once upon a time, not all Republicans were ideological attack dogs.
And the nation might just have to wait until 2016 for civility and bipartisan cooperation to return to Washington.