Former Utah Gov. (and Ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman has fashioned himself as the type of Republican who can appeal to independents and moderates in places such as Northern Virginia. Such positioning, though, is dangerous in a Republican primary in a cycle in which a Democrat in the White House is seeking re-election, which tends to tilt the party more to the right.
It was Richard Nixon who said Republican presidential candidates had to run to the party’s right flank during the primaries and dash back toward the center during the general election. Huntsman, whose father worked in the Nixon administration, started his campaign running toward the party’s middle only to tack back to the right in the final weeks before voting begins in the 2012 presidential contest.
Yesterday, in a speech at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Huntsman unveiled a seven part plan to attack what he has called the “trust deficit” in the country’s institutions. Huntsman called for implementing reforms that would end the culture of crony capitalism that has linked Washington and Wall Street while outraging Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street movement (Huntsman has said that he does not agree with the anti-capitalistic nature of the Occupy movement but understands their frustrations with crony capitalism).
In fighting the nation’s economic and trust deficits, Huntsman may have found the free market populist message that can unite conservatives in the primary and independents in the general election against a president he can frame as being complicit in Washington’s crony capitalistic ways. And he may have started to show some of the fire and anger that he needs in order to convince voters who want a fighter rather than a diplomat to give his conservative record and platform a second look.
Huntsman said “the people are getting screwed” because they don’t have lobbyists and lawyers rigging the system for them.
“We must save capitalism from crony capitalists, and return to our Founders’ vision of a limited government that protects free markets and provides a level playing field of opportunity,” Huntsman said.
As part of his “Citizens Legislature Act,” Huntsman said that he would:
— propose a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress: six two-year terms in the House, two six-year terms in the Senate.
— ban members of Congress and Cabinet officers from lobbying for four years following their departure.
— seek a lifetime ban on Congress members and Cabinet officers lobbying on any issue where they had significant responsibility and require them to publicly release all income for four years following their service.
“The president came to office with a mandate to restore trust in Washington, yet his inexperience and failure to lead have left us worse off,” Huntsman said. “He promised to change Washington, and then immediately succumbed to the partisanship, corporate handouts, bailouts, and spending that have made it so reviled.”
Huntsman then said his opponents were no better and specifically attacked Mitt Romney for being like Washington politicians “who make a career out of telling people what they want to hear” and Newt Gingrich for being “a product of that same Washington, who participated in the excesses of our broken and polarized political system.”
Other parts of Huntsman’s proposal included calls to reform the 17,000 page tax code by eliminating “every last loophole, subsidy and carve-out,” “reform entitlement programs — based on the Ryan Plan — while holding true to our nation’s commitments to those in or near retirement,” “ensure that no financial entity is too-big-to-fail,” “adopt a comprehensive energy strategy that frees us from foreign oil” and “eliminates all energy subsidies,” “streamline regulations in order to create a free, fair, and competitive marketplace,” and “bring our troops home from Afghanistan, while leaving behind an appropriately-sized counter-terrorist presence” while setting “our military strategy and budgets based on long-term threats and vulnerabilities, not on spending patterns developed decades ago and reinforced today by armies of lobbyists.”
Huntsman now has a brand. He’s running as a deficit hawk who will also end the trust deficit made worse by Wall Street, Washington, and the lobbyists and influence peddlers that link them.
But can he be the right messenger for this message?
In the coming days, Huntsman must talk about these issues more passionately. So far, he has spoken about them as cooly as a stereotypical Northeasterner speaks about God or as he has about his Mormon faith. He must speak as fervently about the issues he champions as a Southern Baptist talks about Jesus.
If not, he may be consistently dogged by questions about whether he will mount an independent bid for the presidency if he is not nominated, as he was at the National Press Club. Huntsman said that was moot because he planned to win as a Republican and had “nothing to fear.”
And when he was asked to comment on John Sununu’s attacks on Newt Gingrich earlier in the day, Huntsman said he was tempted to say something perhaps a bit undiplomatic, but refrained from doing so before remarking that Sununu had not looked at his conservative record before endorsing Romney in New Hampshire and badmouthing Huntsman. Huntsman shown that he has the necessary combativeness, but he may need to show more for conservatives to give his record a thorough look.
It is a record that many conservatives have re-examined in the past days and have praised.
Establishment conservative George Will wrote that Huntsman’s “program is the most conservative” and praised Huntsman’s economic program. He also lauded him for being the first governor to opt out of No Child Left Behind, and for his realist foreign policy stances rooted in significant experience in the foreign policy arena.
Even RedState founder and editor Erick Erickson, a fierce Huntsman critic, wrote, “His record as a Governor is more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney combined. He is more pro-life than either of them. He is more economically wedded to the free market than either of them. He has better foreign policy experience than either of them. Huntsman should be a conservative hero in this race.”
And The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis wrote that if Huntsman’s policy proposals were implemented, they would “usher in a conservative, free-market, small-government revolution that no Tea Party member could help but applaud. No Thatcherite or Reaganite either.”
Perhaps fortunately for Huntsman, who has staked his candidacy on New Hampshire, where he hovers around double digits in various polls, this message is also tailor-made for the conservatives and independents in the Granite State who vote in the country’s first-in-the-nation primary. All indications are Huntsman must finish ahead of Romney in New Hampshire for his conservative positions to get more of a second look on a national level.
Huntsman’s “Restoring Trust” speech is what his campaign called his “closing argument,” which means Huntsman will be speaking about the economic and trust deficits on the stump for the next month.
If Huntsman somehow wins New Hampshire and, as implausible as it may sound now, the Republican nomination, his “Restoring Trust” speech may be the opening argument of the 2012 general election against Obama.
If Huntsman does not gain traction and fades away, though, one may be left to wonder if Huntsman’s closing argument for the 2012 primary season may have been better off as his opening one.