Assuming the drama around the lifting of the debt ceiling subsides in early August, political junkies in Washington and around the county will focus next on the Fox News debate among Republican presidential candidates set for August 11 in Iowa. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will be making his debate debut and there’s likely to be building buzz surrounding his participation.
I spent hours hunting down all the online video footage of Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. I enjoyed the exercise, though what I found made me cringe … once. The remainder of the time, I watched with rising admiration as the potential of the man to be a national political phenomenon became more and more apparent with each new clip discovery.
First, to the obvious and superficial — it’s impossible to poorly light Jon Huntsman. He is a picture-perfect candidate suited for the electronic media age. In every setting, be it walking in the woods, standing on top of a desk to address supporters, or at a dark podium transmitted via a shaky handheld camcorder at a 2008 state convention, Governor Huntsman looks the role of the leading man. The parallels to former President Reagan are bound to be made. But at the risk of committing a conservative Republican sacrilege, I do not believe Huntsman suffers by that comparison.
After watching the footage, it’s clear that Governor Huntsman is a sublimely substantive public servant deft at answering every type of question thrown his way. He seems incapable of an awkward answer. He is gracious, logical and thoughtful regardless of the venue. And he shuns the traditional politician’s tactic of deflecting tough questions with rote talking points.
Heightening Huntsman’s appeal, he also refuses to back away from positions he has previously taken. On civil unions, he makes clear that he doesn’t support gay marriage, however he thinks we have not come far enough on matters of equality for gays and lesbians. On his belief that global warming is occurring, he says he’ll follow the guidance of a consensus of scientists rather than politicians. On pricing carbon, he clearly states that the economy is in too poor of shape to consider a carbon policy, but when pressed if he would forswear implementing such a policy in a better economy, he says the issue will come up again. On serving as President Obama’s ambassador to China, he simply owns up and expresses pride at having served in such a vital national security capacity during a time of war.
These are risky positions for a Republican presidential candidate these days. Yet, it is invigorating to watch a politician willing to alienate a portion of the electorate, rather than twist himself to conform to the contours of what is an inflexible purity test demanded by some Republican groups. Other politicians, including our party’s current front-runner, have been masterful at shape-shifting their political beliefs to meet those of the typical activist primary voter in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Huntsman is choosing not go the Mitt Romney route. He is maintaining the political positions he has formed as a two-term governor of Utah and in the decades he has spent in and out of public service.
But in taking stances that anger some voters now, Huntsman is positioning himself to run a strong general election campaign, which is why President Obama’s advisers hope they face someone else in November. Moreover, by risking the wrath of a segment of the GOP base now, he is increasing his chances of actually being able to govern if he becomes president.
If he wins the general election, voters will know what they are getting — as Huntsman himself said to John King in a May 21, 2011 interview, “Some things you will like, some things you won’t, but on balance we hope you like us and if you don’t there are other alternatives.” What’s important is that voters have the opportunity to decide on the absolute concrete policy beliefs of a leader rather than a connect-the-dots outline of a candidate advocating for poll-tested and transiently popular positions.
As for the cringe-worthy moment — the singular instance out of a thorough review of the Web’s record where Huntsman’s remarks could give quarter to his opponents? It is in the June 22, 2011 interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” George Stephanopoulos asks Huntsman about Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod’s contention that Huntsman was effusive in his praise of President Obama during a November 2010 visit to China. Huntsman concedes that he had indeed said, “Good work on your legislative victories, congratulations.” Huntsman quickly added, “I mean that should not be misinterpreted as a wholesale embrace of what they’re doing.” Of course, we won’t see that second sentence in future megabytes of attack ads that will one day flood the Web and TV airwaves, but based on the megabytes I have reviewed, I’m confident that opposition researchers won’t find many more instances of self-inflicted nicks.
I don’t know of any other politician alive today who comes across as likable, competent and at ease across hours of interviews and speeches. Huntsman refers to himself self-deprecatingly as a “margin-of-error candidate,” meaning that his polling numbers among the field of GOP candidates range between 2 and 4 percent at this early stage — the range pollsters usually denote as the delta for a poll’s accuracy. Huntsman brings a new definition to this campaign term — this extensive video survey left the singular impression that Huntsman leaves himself no “margin of error” for mistakes or missteps. Add in the 24-hour news cycle and the gotcha potential of video smart phones, and the result is voters will get to see plenty of evidence of this once the election is in full swing. While other candidates will be running risk-averse campaigns in fear of gaffe-making, mixed messages or misspeaking, Huntsman can be the most open retail campaigner and prolific speaker in the field. Though the scrutiny, pace and pressure of a presidential campaign will certainly test him, he clearly has the most innate potential of any candidate on the political landscape. See for yourself. My research is compiled on a YouTube playlist here.
Juleanna Glover is a founding principal of The Ashcroft Group, LLC, a corporate consulting firm. She has served on the senior staffs of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and Senator John Ashcroft, as well as traveled with Senator John McCain throughout the 2008 presidential primary campaign.