Entry from June 26, 2011

How to explain the media’s enthusiasm for Jon Huntsman? Today’s New York Times Magazine profile by Matt Bai is headed “Huntsman Steps Into the Republican Vacuum.” Republican vacuum? Oh, he must mean all those nasty conservatives vying with each other for the Republican nomination for president in 2012 whose collective presence in the eyes of The New York Times amounts to a nullity. But Mr Huntsman is clearly a different matter. It’s not just that he served, albeit from a considerable distance, in the Obama administration as our ambassador to China, it’s that to the Democrats who dominate both at the newspaper and among its readers he looks like a man they can do business with, as Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The title comes from a passage in the article where Ambassador Huntsman himself ambiguously explains his pre-campaign campaign:

“Listen, if we got no one answering our phone calls and no doors opened at any of these places among people who are high-profile and respected players, then I think the answer would be far different,” Huntsman told me. “You’ve got to respond to the marketplace. But in this case, nature abhors a vacuum, and there happens to be a vacuum that’s in the process of being filled. “By whom,” he added, “I don’t know.”

Well, Matt Bai knows, and The New York Times knows, and they want him because he is bucking the Republican trend, evident among all the others of the G.O.P.’s would-be nominees, to make an obeisance, if only a symbolic one, to the party’s dominant conservative wing. Likewise, Mr Bai reports that “Huntsman said he didn’t like political labels” — now there’s a surprise —” but if he had to pick one, he considered himself a ‘pragmatic problem-solver’.” A subtle variation on the same theme popped up in yesterday’s profile by Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, which reports his self-characterization as “a conservative problem-solver.”

I don’t know, maybe he is a conservative problem-solver, but this kind of thing sounds to me a lot like a dog-whistle to the media — whose candidate, if they had a Republican candidate, he would not coincidentally be. In this, of course, he is like John McCain in his “Straight Talk” campaign of 2000, so it’s fitting that Mr Bai relies so heavily on the Huntsman adviser who was also on the earlier McCain campaign, John Weaver. “McCain seemed to represent neither a party nor an ideology so much as a national yearning for some loftier brand of politics. . .In Huntsman, Weaver saw another less doctrinaire candidate who could embody the same kind of bigness that had so captivated him in McCain” What does he mean by “less doctrinaire”? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe this is what he had in mind:

“I had one person who came up to me at an event in Florida,” he replied, “and said, ‘If you get into this, are you going to take it to the president, take him down and all this, eviscerate him?’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, you’ve just described a losing strategy for the next Republican.’ You’re either able to take a message to the heart and soul of the American people that they can connect with, or you’re done.

The most bizarre bit of the Times profile is this:

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the “Saturday Night Live” routine in which Phil Hartman played the “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” — a Neanderthal who thawed out after 100,000 years, went to law school and became a grandstanding advocate and even ran for political office. (“I don’t really understand your Congress or your system of checks and balances, because as I said during the campaign, I’m just a caveman,” went a typical oration. “I fell on some ice and later got thawed out by scientists. But there is one thing I do know: We must do everything in our power to lower the capital gains tax!”) As I watched Huntsman tour New Hampshire, I began to think of him, in a kind way, as being the unfrozen caveman candidate. He’d been living in a censored society on the other side of the planet — encased in ice, for all political purposes — during the town-hall uprisings in the summer of 2009 and all the grass-roots fury that attached itself to everything Obama did. And this, he seemed to think, exempted him from having to know much about any of it. I’m just a caveman. I don’t know much about your “tea parties” and your “birthers.” But there are some things I do know . . . .

Does Mr Bai really mean to suggest that, like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Gov. Huntsman is a charlatan whose disingenuousness is obvious to everyone except those he manipulates with his compelling biography? Is there encoded message here, then, that he knows that he and the rest of the media are being manipulated? I think that all we really need to know is O’Sullivan’s law. Named after the Editor at Large of National Review, John O’Sullivan, the law states that “all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” Candidates like Ambassador Huntsman who make a point of distinguishing themselves from their right-wing fellow-Republicans, however sound their “pragmatic” intentions, remind us that the law often seems to apply to presidential candidates too.

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