Jon Huntsman refuses to be interesting

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman will not pander to you. Or me.

His strategy for winning New Hampshire? Simple, just go to voters and say: “All of you in this room, you need to know something up front — I don’t pander.”

That’s his problem. My problem is that — though his campaign is desperately in need of catching fire — he refuses to say anything that could be in some way controversial — or interesting. He rarely criticizes his opponents directly, though he will call them out for pandering, because pandering is the one thing that seems to arouse his emotion.

During an exclusive interview at his Washington, DC home on Monday, for example, the former Ambassador and Utah governor said that Rick Perry’s debate line about starting each nation’s foreign aid budget at zero was “irresponsible.”

Then, he called it “a pander line.”

Watch the video here:

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He also criticized Mitt Romney’s pandering to the base, telling me Romney has been “on both sides of all of the important issues of the day.”

That’s what constitutes as over-the-top rhetoric in Jon Huntsman world.

He may be right about Romney, by the way. But Romney is in first place and Huntsman isn’t. And while Huntsman may be consistently pro-life, by refusing to pander to the Republican base — and more importantly — by seeming to relish in the fact that he believes in “science” (and by calling waterboarding “torture”) — Huntsman has personally fueled the perception that he is a moderate, or even liberal.

Consistency aside, most folks probably view Huntsman as to the left of Romney. Why has Huntsman employed such a campaign strategy in a Republican nomination campaign?

Nobody honorable, of course, would encourage Huntsman to lie about his stances — but why not emphasize the areas in which his stances and his record are popular with Republican voters?

I pressed Huntsman on this, and he seemed to concede that he had made a mistake (though, as is often the case with Huntsman, he wouldn’t come out and say so directly). He is keenly aware there is a game to be played — he’s just not willing to play it. During our conversation, for example, he jokingly lamented that his daughters’ parodies get more YouTube hits than his speeches generate. “The world isn’t fair,” he said.

So who is Jon Huntsman? Having spent a bit of time with him, the thing that strikes me most is his refusal to pander — to the voters or the press. He sees this as noble — but it might also be elitist. A willingness to pander at least implies you care enough to tell people what they want to hear. Refusing to pander is tantamount to saying: “I’m not going to lower myself by engaging in the messy work of politics.”

He thinks the public will reward him for it, but I’m skeptical. People always say they don’t like to be pandered to, but when was the last time your boss punished someone for sucking up?

Of course, I’m okay with Huntsman refusing to pander to the voters. It might well be a mistake, but that’s his business. What bothers me personally, however, is his refusal to pander to journalists  — which is to say his refusal to say anything interesting. Quite often politicians who refuse to pander to the public are more than happy to say over-the-top things to the journalists. Not so with Huntsman. If being boring is the one unpardonable sin for politicians, Jon Huntsman may be in deep trouble.

Matt K. Lewis