The Enigma of Jon Huntsman

The GOP field is sorting itself out, which is to be expected. What’s surprising is that so are Republican voters. The early rise of Mitt Romney, the second-place showing of Jon Huntsman (behind Ron Paul) at the recent Republican Leadership Conference, and a Gallup poll last week saying 50% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican favor the candidate with the best chance of beating President Obama, suggests GOP voters on the ground don’t want to pick anyone the moderate Democrat down the block wouldn’t support.

It’s still early, but that makes it even more interesting. It’s at this point in a presidential race that obstreperous and passionate movements and candidacies would normally be rising. It’s later and with time that a certain soberness, a certain inherent moderation normally take hold. But Republicans at the moment seem prematurely settled, even as they watch, judge and figure out whom to support.

A quick read on a few in the field:

Mitt Romney really is the kind of candidate Republicans imagine centrists would like. He looks the part, sounds the part, has experience in the world and government. Four years ago he was new and controversial. Now he’s next in line and kind of old shoe. But the question that dogged him in 2008 hasn’t gone away: Does he have philosophical fire inside him, or only personal destiny fire? If the latter, would he do what needs doing as president? Ronald Reagan was mild and attractive as a person and candidate and never claimed to be a radical, but when he got into office at a crucial moment, he did some radical things that turned out to be the right things. He had philosophical fire, which is important.

Michele Bachmann’s got fire, a libertarian conservative who means it. She broke through in New Hampshire because she wasn’t Cable Bachmann—skittery, combative—but Candidate Bachmann, sincere and accomplished. Does she have the weight and ballast to see it all the way through? Is she a serious person or just a dramatic one who rouses a portion of the base? Will America be drawn to her brand of conservatism?

Tim Pawlenty is earnest, nice, Midwestern. Interestingly, no one doubts his grounding in political thought, or his accomplishments, and yet he’s coming across as weak. Does he want this thing? Is he the right size?

Newt Gingrich? That didn’t work. Good thing voters found out early, not late.

Herman Cain always gets applause in GOP debates because everyone likes him. The media suspect the reason is that he’s handy evidence Republicans aren’t racist. But Republicans like him because they like him.

A number of prominent conservatives are black, and they are admired because they all swam upstream, with no establishment to help them. They weren’t born into it, they had to struggle through to it. And when they arrived they were often greeted awkwardly. They were like the old working-class ethnic Democrats who joined the Republican Party in the 1970s and ‘80s and were greeted by Mrs. Waffington Wafferthird IV: “Your name is Kowalski? We had a plumber named Kowalski at Little Compton, he did wonderful work!” Yeah. Well, glad the pipes work.

It’s been a generation or two since the party was like that, and now old Mrs. Wafferthird is likely to introduce herself with theatricality and flair. “Darling, I’m the antique old stereotype we all spoof. I even spoof myself. Have a Ritz cracker.” And we all feel protective of her because she’s part of a dying wave, a great, three-centuries-long wave.

Anyway Republicans like Mr. Cain because he’s plain-spoken and humorous, and he made some money in America. He’s the American dream. But is he a president? No, he’s a businessman. It’s 2011 and he doesn’t know his own opinion on Afghanistan.

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And now Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor and ambassador to China announced in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park on Tuesday. I went to see a Huntsman crowd, to find out who they are and why they support him. But there was no Huntsman crowd, only a hunk of milling media. Interspersed among them were perhaps a hundred individuals who got themselves there to watch and show support. When asked why they were for him, they said words like “balance,” “principles” and “expanding the umbrella.”

Two weeks ago at a Reuters lunch in Manhattan, Mr. Huntsman appeared with Henry Kissinger to talk about the latter’s new book, “On China.” As Mr. Huntsman talked—when Mr. Kissinger couldn’t remember a particular word in Chinese, Mr. Huntsman smoothly supplied it—two journalists at a table to the side came to the same conclusion at almost the same moment: This isn’t a president, this is a secretary of state. Huntsman—well-tailored, willowy, gray-haired, cerebral-looking—comes alive when talking about Asia. You imagine him in striped pants and morning coat, like Cordell Hull. Yet he’s from Utah, has seven kids, is Mormon, has lowered taxes and balanced budgets. His work in the Obama administration is supposed to be a negative with Republican voters, but it won’t be: It’s China, the big country now always in the back of the American mind. He speaks two Chinese dialects. That sounds useful.

What part of the GOP base would be Mr. Huntsman’s natural constituency? Here political professionals scratch their heads.

Maybe he’s going for moderate conservatives and Republicans who have Romney Reluctance, who just can’t get to Mitt-land, or not yet. Maybe he’s trying to take the vote of conservatives who think deep down Romney doesn’t have a deep down. He’s saying, “I’m like Romney but I have deep beliefs and a particular expertise: I won two terms as a governor, not one, and was a major ambassador. I’m cool, and my hair is just as presidential.”

Mr. Huntsman’s call, in his announcement speech, for more civility, was both appropriate and shrewd. Appropriate because there’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of grace to the political moment. There’s too much hate out there and too many people making a living peddling resentment. Shrewd because it pre-emptively forgives, or retroactively explains, his past friendliness to and support of Mr. Obama. He can flick off criticisms with a sad shake of the head: “That’s the kind of thing I was talking about when I asked for a higher tone.”

His support for gay civil unions is supposedly controversial, but is it? It is a compromise position, and the tea party won’t be made unhappy by it: Social issues are not their focus. Mitch Daniels was knocked for calling for a social issues truce some months ago, but only because he put a name on what is happening anyway. There is an informal truce on social issues in the GOP, but no one likes hearing potential leaders mention it, because then the other leaders have to take a side. But almost everyone in the party is focused now on economic issues, in part because a strong economy fosters everything else, including American compassion. Six months ago a profoundly pro-life U.S. senator who now speaks more on economic issues was asked how he explains the shift in emphasis to his pro-life allies. “I tell them unless we turn things around, no one’s going to be able to have babies.”