Jon Huntsman's Centrist Strategy

The New York Times takes a look at the centrist views of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman: In addition to leading the fight to change the ...
by | March 16, 2009

The New York Times takes a look at the centrist views of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman:

In addition to leading the fight to change the liquor law, he has embraced President Obama's stimulus plan, restated his support for a cap-and-trade system of carbon emissions and announced support for legislation that would provide civil unions for gay couples.

State legislative leaders have gone along with Mr. Huntsman part of the way -- notably on overhauling the liquor law, which both houses approved on Thursday -- and dug in their heels on much of the rest. But Mr. Huntsman's message to his party has been unwavering: that practicality and real-world action, driven by changed circumstance, should be the measure of where the next generation of Republican leaders comes from.

The new Republican direction is not going to come out of Congress, he said, or "empty rhetoric," but from a handful of Republican governors who must compete in a "meritocracy of ideas" that voters will sort out for themselves.

Conservatives may note with some irritation that the Times' story on Huntsman was quite a bit more favorable than the Washington Post's take on South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. Then again, if we're thinking about a Republican presidential primary, wouldn't a candidate be better off receiving negative coverage from the New York Times and the Washington Post?

And that raises other questions: Does Huntsman really think he can win the 2012 Republican nomination, when he's not only taking moderate stances on some issues, but also loudly complaining that his party has become too conservative? If not, what is he trying to accomplish?

It's not a completely implausible presidential strategy. If Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford are all courting conservatives, there could be a niche for a moderate candidate.

Still, Joe Lieberman (circa 2004) could tell him that trying to win a presidential nomination on the strength of moderates is a dicey proposition. You can win a nomination with moderate positions on certain issues (see John McCain 2008), but it's much more difficult when you're explicitly making the case that large segments of your party have lurched too far out of the mainstream (see John McCain 2000). Currently, Huntsman is following the latter course.

Even if Huntsman is a long-shot Republican nominee, there could be a logic to his strategy. Recently, there's been something of a debate over who is the leader of the Republican Party. But, I don't think there's any debate over who's the leader of the G.O.P.'s moderate faction: There isn't one. Huntsman could be trying to step in to fill that void, perhaps with a Republican version of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Then again, maybe Huntsman doesn't have a particular strategy in mind. Though it may sound crazy, we can't rule out the possibility that he's speaking up for a centrist approach because that happens to be what he believes.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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