According to the conventional wisdom peddled by the major media, Jon Huntsman’s emphasis on civility in his nascent presidential campaign counts as admirable but ill-advised.
Leading commentators praise him for saying “I don’t think you need to run down anyone’s reputation to run for president” and adding, “I respect the president.” But they also claim that this commitment to decent discourse will doom the former Utah governor’s chances of victory among a Republican base that demands slashing, mean-spirited, intemperate attacks on the ruthlessly demonized Barack Obama.
The prestige pundits are undoubtedly right about Huntsman’s slim chances of winning the nomination, but they’re completely wrong about the reasons—distorting (or mistaking) the essential nature of the Republican field so far, as well as misdiagnosing the new contender’s chief weakness as a candidate.
A devotion to civility hardly counts as a bold new idea that originated with Jon Huntsman; all the credible GOP contenders have emphasized their policy disagreements with the president, not personal assaults. The two blowhards who clearly violated that standard have either removed themselves from the race altogether (birth-certificate obsessive Donald Trump) or efficiently destroyed their own campaigns (Newt Gingrich, who called the Obama administration a threat as serious as communism or Nazism). Michele Bachmann has flirted with flaming rhetoric in the past (calling Obama “un-American” two years ago) but her approach as presidential contender has been notably more positive.
In both of the Republican debates so far, television viewers may have complained of boredom, but few felt offended by super-heated oratory or intemperate denunciations. In the most famous moment in these two forums, Tim Pawlenty famously refused to go negative on his rival Mitt Romney regarding his controversial health-care law in Massachusetts.
In stressing civility in his announcement, Huntsman was responding to themes in the mainstream media, not themes in the GOP campaign. When he said “the question each of us wants the voters to answer is, who will be the better president, not who’s the better American,” he seemed to address the much-publicized MSNBC ad featuring an anguished plea from Chris Matthews. In that promo, the Hardball star expressed his wish that one of the Republican contenders—“just one!”—would actually come forward and say, “Obama’s just as good an American as I am,” implying that the failure to do so proved the GOP’s racism and extremism.