Ross Douthat asks an interesting question. Conservative Republicans are lusting for an alternative to Mitt Romney. So why are they trying to rekindle an old flame like Newt Gingrich when they could be making eyes at Jon Huntsman?
Everyone recognizes, after all, that Newt carries more baggage than your average ocean liner. Huntsman travels light by comparison by virtue of an unblemished biography and a sparkling gubernatorial record that’s markedly more conservative than Romney’s and ideologically comparable to Rick Perry’s. Moreover, Huntsman has the intellectual dexterity that Perry plainly lacks to go toe-to-toe with Gingrich, Romney and Obama on a debating platform. So why is Gingrich a finalist in the Republican presidential campaign and Huntsman isn’t?
Douthat thinks it’s because Huntsman’s guilty of “political malpractice.” He could have positioned himself in the spot that Gingrich now occupies by default, as the most electable candidate to Romney’s right. Instead, Huntsman decided, inexplicably, to pitch himself as the guy who was going to save the Republican Party from all those crazy Tea Partiers. As a result, conservatives never gave a first, much less a second, look to a candidate they should have had their eyes on all along.
I can’t speak for conservatives, but I suspect that Douthat’s forgetting the thing that most disqualifies Huntsman as a presidential candidate in their eyes: viz., he accepted Obama’s invitation to be his ambassador to China. Obama’s election was widely regarded as the death knell of “movement conservatism,” the ideological well-spring of the Republican Party since it surrendered to its Reagan wing in the 1980s. And it wasn’t only liberals who were saying that.
Pundits who’d been card-carrying members of the conservative movement, like David Frum and David Brooks were saying substantially the same thing and looking like they weren’t very sorry to say it. They knew that, by jumping ship in rough waters, they’d be burning their partisan bridges to the Reaganite Republican Party and their ideological bridges to movement conservatism. But they were betting that the 2008 election signaled that these were bridges to nowhere anyway. When he decided to serve as Obama’s ambassador to China, Huntsman was laying down substantially the same bet.
We can leave aside the question of whether the death of movement conservatism would have been a good or bad thing because, by any reasonable standard, Obama’s election gave it and the Reaganite Republican Party new life. I presume that Frum and Brooks don’t need to be advised that they’ve been left without a partisan and ideological home. However tightly he may now embrace the Paul Ryan budget or rate-reducing tax reform, substantially the same thing goes for Huntsman.