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Huntsman's Problem: Substance, Not Civility

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Actually, I played Matthews’ challenge for Pawlenty when he was on my radio show in May, and the former Minnesota governor cheerfully and explicitly acknowledged that the president was “as good an American as I am.” We sent the tape to Matthews and his staff but they somehow failed to acknowledge that a leading candidate took the bait and rejected paranoid birtherism, well before the “fresh face” Huntsman entered the arena.

The false narrative about Huntsman’s civility dooming his campaign also shifts attention from his real vulnerabilities as a candidate.

The biggest problem involves his service until a few weeks ago in the same administration he now seeks to unseat. Huntsman says that accepting the appointment as ambassador to China and resigning as governor involved service to his country, and was a noble example of placing patriotism above party. Maybe so, but it also meant throwing in his lot, for better or worse, with Barack Obama and his team.

Imagine former Democratic Congressman Norman Mineta (who served the Bush administration for six years as secretary of transportation) coming home to California to seek his party’s nomination for governor or senator, let alone president. Do you think some dedicated Democrats might possibly hold it against him that he had provided loyal service to the dreaded and despised George W.?

Working for a president of the opposite party may demonstrate an estimable nonpartisan spirit, but it hardly prepares you to succeed in a proudly partisan process like competing in your own party’s caucuses and primaries.

Moreover, media coverage of Huntsman’s announcement of his candidacy headlined the civility theme in large part because there was absolutely nothing else worth reporting. Aside from the sloppy stage-craft (attempting to use the Statue of Liberty as a convenient prop), his speech offered a collection of empty platitudes so mind-numbingly banal that it brought to mind H.L. Mencken’s immortal description of Warren Harding’s rhetoric: “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

Beyond these stylistic shortcomings, Huntsman offered no indication of his approach to any major issue, nor did he point to specific policy disagreements that led him to abandon and challenge his recent boss.

It’s true enough that Jon Huntsman will go nowhere in an already crowded Republican field, but that’s because of the lack of substance in the Huntsman campaign, not the absence of civility in the GOP.

This column ran originally in THE DAILY BEAST June 29, 2011

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