Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why Huntsman really lost

Jon Huntsman is everywhere these days, except one place -- elected office.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing, and it's worth considering how he didn't get there and one of the big myths about his candidacy.

Huntsman didn't lose the GOP primary in 2012 because he was too moderate. In fact, he made a calculated shift toward the right when it seemed politically convenient to do so in late fall 2011.

He lost because he was a bad candidate.

Here's what we know.

a. Mitt Romney had a more moderate record than Huntsman.

Huntsman governed as a conservative in Utah. He wasn't always conservative, but he was conservative enough to score historic approval ratings in the 80% region. You don't do that in Utah without being at least somewhat conservative.

Compared to Huntsman, Romney's record was liberal. In fact, compared to everyone in the GOP primary it was liberal, and yet he still won.


Well, the popular explanation is that Romney only managed to squeak by because he turned himself into this "severely conservative" guy.

The popular follow-up is that Huntsman wasn't willing to sell his ideological soul to the right wing, and thus, Romney was able to get away with being secretly moderate, while Huntsman wasn't able to get away with being blatantly moderate.

For a time, that seemed a reasonable hypothesis.

When he launched his bid, Huntsman clearly positioned himself as the mainstream alternative to Mitt Romney -- the electable guy you could trust.

And, indeed, Huntsman was severely reluctant to call himself a conservative -- at first.

But once Huntsman saw how great life was if you were to the right of Romney, he suddenly moved in a very conservative direction, reaching out to blogs like Red State, proposing bold tax reform embraced by supply siders, actually saying "I embrace the Ryan plan", and comparing Romney's conservatism unfavorably with his own.

All this led to a December piece in the Washington Examiner, titled "Conservatives embracing Huntsman." Red State's Erick Erickson called Huntsman's record "more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney combined."

In fact, check out this ad that Huntsman's Super PAC placed in New Hampshire in December -- he's called "conservative" SIX TIMES.

But that was a very different Huntsman than we saw when he launched his candidacy.

Watch and compare these two videos for a good example.

The first is from Huntsman's launch, when he was trying to position himself as a moderate alternative to Romney.

After Sean Hannity asked if he were conservative, Huntsman did all kinds of stammering and seemed quite reluctant to call himself a conservative (on Fox News of all places!).

"You know, everybody has labels and tags that they want to throw your way, and all I say is 'Look, at my record. I'm running on my record'.

A lot of people run away from their records. I'm very proud of my record. Some people will like it, others will find elements of it that they don't like.

But I would term myself as a conservative, problem-solver. When all is said and done, I'm a conservative problem-solver."

That was in June 2011.

Now fast-forward to January of 2012 when Huntsman's move to the right was at its desperate peak just before the New Hampshire primary which doomed him.

On Morning Joe, Huntsman was asked if he were "a conservative", and he immediately answered "absolutely I am."

But seven months earlier, he seemed pained to even call himself one on Hannity's show.

Of course, that anecdote is just one, but it's reflective of Huntsman's own politically-convenient evolution during the GOP primary -- he vacillated from apparent contempt for the party to pander to the party, and really, no one called him out for it.

Ironically, one of Huntsman's primary talking points was that there was a "trust deficit", but one of the reasons he failed was that GOP voters didn't know if they could trust him.

2. Huntsman also tanked because he was just a bad campaigner.

He ranged from awful to mediocre, at best, during the debates -- it's not that he didn't try, it's just that he offered weak jokes, donned aggression at times, passivity at other times, and was never able to find a groove. Good debaters find grooves after a few debates. Huntsman didn't.

That's not because he was too moderate and GOP primary voters too right wing -- that's what Huntsman and the narrative want you to think. He tanked in debates because he was a bad debater.

And how was he on the stump? I wasn't embedded with the Huntsman campaign, but from everything we seemed to see, he was just as underwhelming -- a guy cut out to be a diplomat and not a candidate for national office.

So to tie this all together -- Huntsman wasn't some paragon of ideological steadiness in the primary, as his side would have you believe. He shifted considerably when it was convenient to do so, and when he saw an opening to Romney's right.

And none of that really mattered anyway, because he was just forgettable at debates and on the stump. He never really gave people a reason to vote for him, and that's saying something considering that primary voters were desperate for anyone but Romney.