One of the biggest problems that John McCain faced in 2000 and again in 2008 is how people portrayed him. Because he had chastised the far right on one occasion or another, people started to paint McCain as a centrist Republican, completely ignoring his record which was actually pretty conservative. People wanted to see in John McCain what they wanted to see and when reality stared them in the face, they were shocked that this candidate that they lauded as a moderate or centrist was really a conservative.
Now it’s Jon Huntman’s turn. Because he has staked out positions to the left of the party on civil unions and the environment, he immediately got tagged as the reincarnation of Nelson Rockefeller. Which is why I think Jess Chapman wrote this very odd post taking the conservative Utah governor for pandering to….conservatives.
Chapman links to this Yahoo story where Huntsman met with a group of Tea Party activists in South Carolina:
Those who braved the heat to show up to the presidential forum in the Palmetto State — home of the first Southern presidential primary — admitted they came skeptical of Huntsman’s conservative credentials.
“I think candidates need to have constructive criticism, and that’s what people are saying about him,” Jones, the woman who did the impromptu audience survey, told The Daily Caller. “That he’s a moderate.”
Despite the fact he governed in conservative Utah, how did he get that reputation?
His speeches aren’t exactly fiery like those of fellow candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain or potential rival Sarah Palin. He once worked for President Obama, as ambassador. And last week, he was the only major presidential candidate to support the debt-ceiling compromise struck by Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House.
Huntsman, who was tie-less on Sunday and shed his blazer once on-stage, spent the next hour at Scott’s forum trying to convince those like Jones that he is no moderate or liberal Republican.
He got loud applause by praising the district’s freshman conservative congressman by saying, “thank god for Tim Scott.” They applauded again when he said President Obama has “failed us” and when he said the country needs a balanced budget amendment, a favorite of tea partiers.
And when it comes to paying down the country’s debt, he said “everything needs to be on the table,” including entitlements and defense.
“We can’t have any sacred cows in this debate,” Huntsman said.
Chapman saw this as a loss of nerve:
When former Ambassador Jon Huntsman (R-UT) announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, I was thrilled. He had a solid record on both domestic and foreign policy; he had executive experience; he had the potential to be a true political uniter; and even if the Republicans dropped him, we centrists could have someone around whom to rally if he went third-party. Then he hit the campaign trail and lost his balls. It’s quite a common tale.
Huntsman was in Charleston, SC, yesterday, at a town hall organized by Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), one of the young Tea Party guns. Put him together with a room full of like-minded people, and you can easily find yourself under enormous pressure to toe the line, which is exactly what Huntsman did. He asked the crowd to look at his record – and then took great pains to stress his status as a “conservative problem solver,” emphasis on the “conservative.” A few shots at President Obama and props to Scott, and he was in business. As far as we know.
When Huntsman announced his candidacy earlier in the year, I wrote a post about how folks have tended to misconstrue his conservative record. What made him different was not that he was a moderate, but that he was a conservative that was open to reaching out to moderates. Here’s what I wrote back then:
Huntsman’s support for civil unions and responding to climate change has had him pegged as some sort of Rockefeller Republican (which has been described as in one reading). But his moderation is one more of tone than it is one of politics. While such moderation might not be attractive to die hard centrists, I do think it might be more appealing to those who want to be persuaded to vote GOP, but don’t feel they can’t with some of the current crop of candidates (think Michelle Bachmann). I don’t think it’s an accident that Huntsman kicked off his campaign at the same place Ronald Reagan did a generation ago. I think he is less about reviving a moderate, northeastern-style Republicanism, than he is reviving a Western conservatism ala Reagan. Reagan was no doubt a conservative, but he is remembered as trying to expand the conservative family, instead forcing purity tests on folks.
Huntsman is not a moderate politically, but he is trying to hone a civil and civic-minded conservatism, something that just might appeal to moderates and independents.
As for meeting with Tea Party conservatives? Well, they aren’t my (pardon the pun) cup of tea, but I know that this is part of politics. If Huntsman is serious about winning the GOP nomination, he has to meet with all types of folks and that includes the Tea Party. Coupled with a his recent outreach efforts to moderates in New Hampshire, he is doing what Ronald Reagan did 30 years ago: reach out to the different part of the GOP and even try to grow the party. If he went on television denouncing the Tea Party and calling them wingnuts, he might get the praise of centrists and liberals, but if he did that, he might as well give up any chance of winning in the GOP. If he wants to win, he has to play nice with the Tea Party. Jess might not like it. I might not like it. But this is politics. It’s not like he’s started parroting Michelle Bachmann or something.
Which brings me back to the comparisons with John McCain. McCain always had to deal with people who wanted to see in McCain what they wanted to see. Huntsman is facing the same problem. Chapman wants Huntsman to stay moderate/centrist all the time, but that’s kind of impossible since he was never a moderate to begin with. He’s a conservative that wants to reach out to moderates and in the world of Republican politics, that’s good enough.