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.
All of this means that Huntsman, having dared to “channel” Reagan by choosing this venue, had better choose his words carefully. One option is to go the Palin route: broadly allude to Reagan, rather than citing his specific policies. But the second, far bolder route — which I suspect Huntsman is contemplating — is to embrace Reagan’s legacy completely, but also to recast it. That means Reagan not as the ideological firebrand that so many Republicans like to recall — however inaccurately — but Reagan as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative “pragmatist” and “problem-solver” — a man arguing from principle, but always ready to reach across the aisle and, when necessary, cut a deal.
Undoubtedly, Huntsman’s campaign has studied Reagan’s Liberty Park speech, which still resonates powerfully today. It was a militant “red meat” speech that managed to appeal to the political center. Reagan savaged Carter’s “failed” leadership on the economy, much as Republicans hope to with Obama. He ridiculed Carter’s suggestion that the country was merely in a “recession,” and whipped the audience into near-frenzy when he said, “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job. It’s a depression when you lose YOURS. And it’s a recovery when Jimmy Carter loses HIS!”
Wisely, though, Reagan spent most of his speech focused on Carter, not on the Democratic Party as a whole. And when members of the audience booed at the mere mention of Carter’s party, Reagan quietly “shushed” them, saying he hoped that many Democrats were listening to him. They soon would.
Is Huntsman the man to deliver such a powerful, two-track speech? Probably not. Reagan could convincingly zing Carter because he already had years of “street cred” as a “movement” conservative. And by 1980 he was already the party heir apparent, having nearly beaten Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. He was also a former Democrat and union member, and could invoke that biography to sound a bipartisan note.
Can you imagine a Republican today getting away with quoting labor leader George Meany so approvingly, or reminding his audience, as Reagan did, that unions and collective bargaining rights were bulwarks of American democracy? It wasn’t easy in Reagan’s time, and only someone with Reagan’s unquestioned commitment to economic and political freedom could have said it so uncompromisingly.
But Huntsman served in the Obama administration and is on record extolling the president’s virtues as a political leader. And while some of his stances — especially on immigration — could easily be squared with Reagan’s later political record, invoking these stances now isn’t going to help Huntsman win the GOP primary. Some of Huntsman’s other stances, like his opposition to the U.S. intervention in Libya and his calls for a more rapid pullback from Afghanistan, are threatening to place him in the Ron Paul “anti-interventionist” camp — or worse — hardly a position that Reagan, even at his most flexible, would have taken.
Huntsman’s campaign gamble may well pay off if it manages to showcase his telegenic presence and his reasoned and flexible — if still decidedly conservative — approach to policy. Huntsman does have a sterling record of supporting pro-life legislation, cutting taxes, and reducing his state’s deficit. Arguably, he’s more of a “conservative” in the strict sense than even Reagan was. But his temperament and style suggest otherwise, and at a time when other conservatives are loudly banging at the gates, Huntsman seems to be barely raising his voice.
That’s why such a high-profile, symbolic speech like this one could well make or break Huntsman. It certainly raises expectations and invites scrutiny. If he succeeds, Huntsman could well set a new tone for the presidential policy debate and halt Mitt Romney’s slow forward march to the nomination.
But if Huntsman underwhelms or overreaches — much as Obama did with his grandiose campaign tribute speech to JFK in Germany in 2008 — he could well find himself dismissed as just another high-minded “poseur.”
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.