Pity Jon Huntsman, the Republican wunderkind who left the U.S. to be ambassador to China in early 2009 to burnish his résumé as the GOP’s best bet to oust President Barack Obama and came back two years later to find himself obsolete.
Huntsman was, The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson wrote, “The Rethinking Man’s Candidate,” forged in the days after Obama’s election, when the GOP was battered and bloodied following the 2008 blowout and had to reassess its position and see things anew.
In those giddy days, only two things seemed possible: The entire country had turned to the left (and the GOP had to turn with it) or Obama himself would turn to the center, pre-empt independents, whom he had carried, and form an enduring center-left bond.
Either way, the GOP needed Huntsman — urbane, hip and fluent in Mandarin — to help it survive in this era. But neither scenario occurred.
The country stayed where it was (a tick or two to the right of dead center), while Obama turned left, terrifying independents, who then turned against him, and moving the GOP right. Huntsman returned to a different reality.
His campaign peaked on the day he announced his presidential ambitions. Before his product had even gone on the market, his sell-by date had passed.
Huntsman’s tale shows us how fast things can happen in modern-day politics, and how quickly the parties can change. Today’s Republicans are rebelling — not only against Obama’s regime, but also that of George W. Bush, their most recent president, who they think now broke faith with their tenets by spending too much.
The tea party is in some ways a reaction to Obama, but Bush was elected by reacting against a hard-right and hard-edged Republican Congress, which, by the time he was running for president, had worn out its own welcome.
Its leaders had won by running against President Bill Clinton, who in his early days in office raised taxes, spent money, lost independents and tried to push health care reform — this might sound familiar. But when Bush began running after the 1998 midterms, that Clinton was gone.
After his shock in the ’94 midterms, Clinton moved to the center. In 1996, he won an electoral landslide. His Third Way was hailed as the wave of the future. Bush’s response was to run more or less as a Third Way Republican. No tea party type could have won in that climate. Bush did.
A president not only determines the course of his party, he also sets the tone of the other one, too. If Clinton called forth the compassionate conservatives, Obama’s debts and expansion of government empowered the deficit-hawk and small-government factions.
Moderate presidents depress their own base (and that of the opposite party); more-extreme presidents energize both. Had Obama governed from the center-left, with no spurts of spending and small steps on health care, the Republican right would not have gained traction and the tea party would not have emerged.
In that case, Huntsman might have returned to the welcome he sought as the hope of his party. Instead, he belongs to a now-bypassed era — the ghost of a long-ago past.
Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”