Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will appear at Liberty State Park in New Jersey on Tuesday to formally announce his bid for the presidency. It’s hard to imagine a venue more laden with political symbolism. Liberty State Park juts out into New York Harbor, with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty — emblematic beacons of hope and prosperity for the world — looming prominently on the horizon.
But Huntsman is not just planning to invoke American freedom. Liberty Park is also the place where Ronald Reagan launched his bid to turn another Democratic incumbent — Jimmy Carter — into a one-term president. The Gipper’s barn-burning speech on Labor Day in 1980, more than 31 years ago, set him firmly on the road to reclaiming the White House for Republicans. And Huntsman, who’s yet to appear before a large campaign audience, clearly has the same ambition.
But will it work? On the one hand, Huntsman is still barely known, even in Republican circles. That means a high-profile, almost allegorical, campaign kick-off may be just what he needs to jumpstart his candidacy. It could also help put to rest fears that Huntsman, who served as Obama’s China envoy and publicly backed the stimulus package, is not a conservative Republican. If that image lingers, Huntsman’s candidacy is doomed.
But there are serious risks here, too. Huntsman, who excels at commencement speeches held indoors in staid academic settings, is not known, as Reagan was, for commanding public oratory. His most memorable turn before a large political audience was the speech he gave at the 2008 GOP convention introducing Sarah Palin as the party’s vice-presidential candidate.
John McCain, who’s quietly backing Huntsman’s presidential bid, assigned that task to Huntsman, and his speech is still painful to watch. Huntsman gamely tried to rally the party faithful to support a candidate who he clearly had some doubts about — and it showed. And his voice, once raised to the level of exhortation, sounded thin and shrill. On Tuesday, speaking on an outdoor stage amid the swirling wind, Huntsman will be hard-pressed to stay in his oratorical comfort zone.
And how much of the Reagan legacy does Huntsman plan to invoke? Palin, nearly alone among contemporary conservatives, has also claimed the Gipper as a direct political forebearer. But she’s tended to focus on generalities — on Reagan’s “bold” leadership and his unflagging “optimism” about America, for example — rather than on policy specifics. The same is true of another prospective GOP candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who just invoked Reagan at a rousing speech closing the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. And for good reason, it seems.
Reagan was not a “model” conservative, at least not by today’s Tea Party standards. Despite his talk of smaller government, he allowed federal spending to grow and ran up huge national deficits. Reagan also largely bowed to the Democrats in Congress to cut a deal on Social Security that no Republican would agree to today, and he signed an immigration reform bill in 1986 that included a sweeping “amnesty” and toothless employer sanctions that many conservatives now blame for unprecedented illegal immigration. And for all his later sympathy for the rights of the unborn, Reagan had supported abortion rights as a two-term governor, and Christian conservatives constantly pressured him — with mixed success — to focus more on social issues after he became president.