Why isn’t Huntsman winning? It’s the campaign, stupid

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Boomlet after boomlet. Where will the wheel of fortune stop? Like Ben Smith at Politico, Michael Brendan Dougherty makes the (inevitable?) case for Huntsman:

[…] there is still a very electable conservative in the race! […] He has been branded a moderate by the press and by people in his campaign. But take a look at his record and see if it doesn’t warm your heart.

Dougherty ably recites Huntsman’s not-so-moderate credentials — and, this morning, the Huntsman campaign blasted out his comments for immediate release. But in a field where Perry and Cain, two candidates Dougherty has already pronounced dead, soldier on somehow (hint: $$$$), shouldn’t conservatives be asking why Huntsman is riding so low in the polls to begin with?

Given that Huntsman really is substantially more conservative than popular and professional opinion suggest, it’s a matter with particular heft and urgency. Is the right making a horrible mistake?

Maybe. More likely, it’s Team Huntsman that’s blundered for no good reason. Why have they run this campaign, and not some other? It isn’t as if there aren’t options. And it isn’t as if a different strategy, selected at random, would be likely to perform worse.

Look at Huntsman mastermind John Weaver, best known for his time atop Campaign McCain. His contempt for the conservative establishment falls like poison rain from nearly every remark he offers the (salivating) press. “It’s a fork in the road between seriousness and circus,” he told Dana Milbank last month.

Really? If so, Huntsman would be better off not running at all. Not only is it impossible to purge politics of its silliness. It’s unseemly to portray oneself, Obama-style, as the only adult in the room. The politicization of the culture war is a two-way street. What does it say about an essentially mainstream conservative like Huntsman that he entrusts his brand and his electoral fortunes to a man who wants him to run against his own appeal to the Republican base broadly understood?

It says his real strategy is simply to lodge in people’s minds in a far more unflattering light than the one in which Dougherty presents him: as the last-ditch alternative to the least palatable candidate of all, Mr. Well-Lubricated Weathervane himself, Willard “Mitt” Romney.

Huntsman should fire Weaver and hire Dougherty. Doughtery is doing the world a favor in his capacity as the lone voice of conscience touting Huntsman’s right-wing record.

But — while Weaver is simply a jerk about this — Dougherty is tragically mistaken that Huntsman’s “moderate image is an asset.” Maybe against Obama — but with the kind of poll numbers that can only win the Big Media Primary, any and all visions of that lopsided match-up are condemned to flicker dimly in the mistworld of washed-up fantasies.

I like Jon Huntsman too. But I have no patience for his campaign, and no capacity to understand it on any level beyond craven, cynical survivalism. Weaver gleefully watched one Republican field flame out in a disgrace so total that the only candidate left standing was his own John McCain. How’d that work out? Weaver has the lifer politico’s luxury of shrugging such questions off. All indications are that this time around he’s hell-bent on orchestrating the same purge of party dignity and movement pride.

At this rate, he’ll never have the chance. His strategy is geared in spite of itself to ensure that. But, in all frankness, his diabolical scheme actually could work in this bizarro race, where I’m half-expecting Jeb Bush to ride in naked on a Pegasus and seize the nomination like a golden fleece.

But Weaver’s isn’t a scheme that should work. It should be punished, pruned, pickled as an example of degenerate electioneering, and, most important of all, replaced. Cultural politics aside, any conservative nominee worth the name and the title has to chart a path to victory that presumes a minimum of good faith on the part of voters and campaign staff.

That’s not just good politics. It’s good character. If it’s ever going to be Huntsman’s turn, he’s going to have to pass that test — and fast.

James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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