WASHINGTON—Watching the Republican primary race is a lot like being at a carnival. There’s the roller coaster of polling numbers, the kind that has Herman Cain surging to the top one week, then collapsing as Newt Gingrich rises. Then there’s the candidates themselves, who sometimes seem more like sideshow acts — each trying to top the next with a more outrageous statement — than actual contenders to be the next president of the United States.
I’m not sure which statement stands out the most — Michele Bachmann’s assertion that the American Civil Liberties Union runs the Central Intelligence Agency; Cain trying to name the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”; Gingrich claiming that a luxury cruise around the Aegean gave him experience to deal with Greece’s foreign debt crisis; Rick Santorum stating that he wants to go to war with China; or Mitt Romney asserting that if Barack Obama is re-elected, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” but if Romney is elected, “They will not have a nuclear weapon.” My favorite is Bachmann (again) telling an Iowa crowd that if she is elected, she will close the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Only one problem: the U.S. hasn’t had an embassy in Iran since 1980, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days — something you would expect Bachmann, a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, to know.
This spectacle has not gone unnoticed by Republican primary voters. Yet many continue to entertain the Gingriches of the race out of a refusal to believe that someone like Romney could really be their only option, even as others seem convinced that Romney’s electability in a general election should earn him the nomination.
I tend to side with those who argue that someone who seems devoid of core principles isn’t electable, particularly after viewing a devastating video released this week of his many flip-flops. Lest we forget, it was Mitt Romney who published an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader suggesting the Obama Recovery Act was the largest expenditure ever during peacetime. I know of no definition of “peacetime” that involves fighting two wars at once. It was also Romney, just a few weeks ago, who called for privatizing veteran care, then reneged days later.
When you also consider Romney’s close connections to Wall Street at a time when left and right alike are ready to storm the castle, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Romney winning states like Michigan. Ohio might have been feasible had he not full-throatedly flip-flopped to support the anti-collective bargaining referendum, which Ohio voters rejected by a nearly two-to-one margin. And with Romney suggesting we let the housing market hit bottom as a solution to the housing crisis, it’s hard to imagine victory in places like Nevada, where more than 1 in 10 families with children have lost their homes.
That leaves the Republican Party in a quandary. If Romney isn’t actually electable, who is? Gingrich may be attractive to Republican primary voters, but with his own flip-flops, off-putting marital history, and decades’ worth of outrageous statements, he may be the least electable Republican in a general election since Barry Goldwater. While occasionally brilliant, it’s hard to imagine America electing a man whose most pronounced character trait is bullying. Given how Bill Clinton played him during the 1995 government shutdown, it’s scary to think what the Chinese might do with him.
So, what’s the answer? I believe it is staring Republicans in the face: Jon Huntsman. He’s not just the most experienced candidate — he’s also the most electable Republican.
Huntsman has been dismissed from the start — largely because he worked for “the enemy,” as Obama’s first ambassador to China. Yet Huntsman is no less a conservative than Mitt Romney. He is pro-life, pro-business, and deeply religious; he even favors Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan. He still holds that global warming is real, a position Romney has retracted.
Unlike Romney, however, Huntsman has the chops to be president. An ambassador three times over, a wildly popular two-time governor who cut taxes while creating jobs, and a global businessman, Huntsman is the only one standing who can negotiate with the Chinese. As Joe Klein recently observed, his ideas are resolutely conservative, and his economic vision “is the closest any candidate has come to diagnosing the real problems at the heart of the Great Recession — and proposing a reasonable path forward.”
He is the kind of candidate independent voters fawn over. His quirks — he rides Harleys, played in a rock band, speaks Mandarin, and dropped out of high school before earning his general equivalency degree — helped him get re-elected governor in Utah in 2008 with a 58-point margin of victory, even as Republicans fell around him. Were he to win the nomination, he would be difficult for the president to attack. After all, if President Obama thought Huntsman unqualified, would he really have appointed him to the most important ambassadorship in the world?
Given his strengths, there’s no question that Huntsman could be the 45th president; and that’s not something lost on the president’s campaign team. In 2009, David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and current senior adviser, worried publicly about facing Huntsman in 2012. His appointment to the ambassadorship was a pre-emptive parry.
Of course, winning the general election and winning the Republican nomination are different things. Huntsman is the only candidate onstage for whom the latter poses a substantially stiffer challenge than the former. Yet even considering the low polling numbers he currently shows, don’t rule Huntsman out.
This same time last election, John McCain was trailing badly in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He even took out a personal loan just to keep his campaign afloat. And yet, when Mitt Romney lost the Iowa caucus to a candidate who wasn’t really a national contender, the opening for McCain became clear, he won New Hampshire, and eventually the nomination.
It is not hard to imagine the same Mitt Romney losing to the same kind of far-right candidate in Iowa a month from now, giving Huntsman the window he’ll need. It may not seem like it now: but my prediction is that Romney will lose in Iowa, Huntsman will win in New Hampshire and eventually be the Republican nominee for President.