Jon Huntsman and the Evolution of the “Moderate” Label

GOP Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has signed several bills restricting abortion, and he supports a right to life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He supports building a fence on the Mexican border. He supports the death penalty. He governed Utah when it was named the most favorable state for business. He not only supports school vouchers, he actually signed a school voucher bill into law. He opposes an assault weapon ban. He wants to slash the authority of the EPA and NLRB. He opposes the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate. He wants to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit to dramatically increase taxes on the poor. At the same time, he proposes drastically cutting tax rates on the wealthiest Americans and corporations.

Moderate?
If you polled Americans and asked them how they would describe the political philosophy of a candidate holding those positions, they surely would say that candidate is very conservative. After all, Huntsman’s positions are at least as conservative as McCain, Bush 2, Dole, Bush 1, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, and Goldwater.

But despite Governor Huntsman’s strongly conservative record, the rigorous 90-second Google analysis I conducted today reveals that Huntsman is more likely to be described on the Internet and in the news as “moderate Jon Huntsman” than “conservative Jon Huntsman,” by an overwhelming 8-to-1 margin.

I understand that Huntsman is usually labeled a moderate because he is the most moderate person in the 2012 GOP presidential field, a radically conservative line-up. But still, it’s remarkable to see how far news reporters, bloggers and the general public have shifted their definition of “moderate” to the right as the Republicans Party has moved rapidly to the far right.

– Loveland

Expectations for Tonight’s Debate

Political junkies looking for an excuse to avoid organizing their sock drawers will be gathered ’round the tellies and laptops this evening to watch the latest GOP presidential debate.  You can watch it on MSNBC or streaming on  Politico.  Festivities kick off at 7:00 pm CST though there’s sure to be pre-game coverage beforehand.

Tonight’s debate will feature 8 candidates and because of the Crowd’s remarkable connections, we can give you access to the last-minute advice each one is receiving from their handlers and debate coaches about what needs to be achieved, what needs to be avoided and how to get there.  Let’s listen in:

Michele Bachmann: “…what we really need tonight, Congresswoman, is for you to show that you’re still relevant to this race.  Yes, we’ve lost all the momentum we had coming out of Ames.  Yes, we’ve lost our campaign manager and our #2 manager this weekend.  Yes, there’s a danger every time you open your mouth, but your job this evening is to own the stage like you did at the New Hampshire debate in June (boy, doesn’t that seem like a long time ago?).  We’re trying like hell to get the moderators to ask you a ‘gotcha’ question about Marcus or the counseling or the farm so you can do the moral outrage thing again, but we can’t count on it.  Ignore everyone except Romney and Perry and attack them whenever possible:  Romney’s a flipflopper, Perry’s governed Texas for 11 years by selling it off bit by bit to his buddies.  Steal Palin’s ‘crony capitalism’ line if you see the opening to use it.  Hit Obama as often as possible – it might be time to bring back ‘gangster government.’  And, please, please, please…try not to knock us off-message with a ‘freelance’ answer; if it isn’t in the briefing book, please don’t say it. Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  After all, he’s from Iowa like you!”

Herman Cain: “Herman, just go out and enjoy yourself tonight.  Our best guess is that this might be the last debate you’re invited to; your polling numbers are down there with Gary Johnson.  Because of that, the moderators are probably not going to give you a lot of openings so you’re going to have to jump in whenever you have a chance.  You’re articulate, you’re good on your feet, so just roll with it.  Who knows, we might get a “this is my microphone Mr. Green” moment that will keep us alive another month or two. Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  You were both on the radio!”

Newt Gingrich: “Mr. Speaker, I’m not sure what to tell you to do.  I mean, just a month ago I was a volunteer in your campaign’s New Hampshire office and now I’m your campaign manager so I’m a little over my head here.  I guess you could talk about your ideas…you always have really cool sounding ideas…and maybe quote some Greek philosopher… that always sounds good.  Does your wife have any advice? Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  After all,  he was out of office for as long as you before he won the presidency!”

Jon Huntsman: “Governor, we really see this as your first appearance on the national stage.  Our polling tells us that a good percentage of likely Republican voters have forgotten you’re running for president.  Even worse, among those who do they don’t like you much because you’re seen as too moderate or are out of the consideration set because you worked for the Great Satan (Obama).  Tonight, you’re going to have really show a little leg in the sense of showing the base you can hate Obama and what he’s done to our country as much as the craziest, most jingoistic candidate out there.  You know who we’re talking about.  We need you to be aggressive and energetic – here take a couple of these…no, they’re perfectly legal (somewhere) – and to work as many of these words – “failure,” “bankrupt,” “traitor,” “un-American,” “disaster” – into your responses as possible.  Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  After all, he was a governor just like you!

Ron Paul: “Congressman, we’ve seeded the audience with as many supporters as we could get into the building – our guys have been standing on line for two weeks to get seats in the hall – so you can count on applause every time you open your mouth.  Hell, they’ll cheer if you break wind!  Just keep doing what you’ve been doing at every debate – tell the truth that we’re bankrupt as a country, that drugs should be legalized, that we should pull every troop back to the U.S. border, that the Fed ought to be eliminated and the gold standard readopted – and it’ll be great.  You can’t count on the moderators giving you equal time – remember how they ignored us after Ames – but let’s all remember that we’re really setting you up for the 2020 race. Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  After all, for years people thought he was an extremist just like you!

Rick Perry: “Governor, I know you don’t like debate formats so I know you’re not looking forward to tonight.  And, you can expect that everyone will be gunning for you.  Even so, our goals for tonight are easy: no mistakes, no gaffes, no scary language.  Keep your answers short, serious and to the point.  We’re lapping the other candidates in the polls among likely GOP voters so this approach will also help us with another long-term goal; persuading moderates and independents you’re a viable choice.  Work the brush fires into a couple of responses – how brave the people of Texas are, how resilient they are, how much they represent the best of America, something like that – but remember – as hard as it is to believe – not everyone loves Texas.   We’re also trying to position you as the outsider who can go to Washington and fix what’s wrong there, but this is a fine line to walk; the more we talk about that, the more we remind people of George Bush.  Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  After all, he used to wear cowboy boots just like you!”

Mitt Romney: “OK, let’s all get on the same page here: the ‘running as the defacto nominee’ strategy is no longer working.  As page 17 of the Powerpoint clearly indicates, GOP voters are still ‘unenthused’ about the Governor as the Republican nominee.  Accordingly, if you’ll flip to page 27, we’ve set ought a 5-point plan for tonight’s debate: 1) be less scripted; 2) make more use of pre-screened one-liners to convey spontaneity; 3) include at least two key messages from focus group testing in each answer; 4) smile between 1.5 and 3 times per answer depending on content; 5) attack Governor Perry as unelectable, dangerous and clone of George W. Bush. Oh, and claim that you’re the one true heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy.  After all, he ran for president twice just like you!”

Rick Santorum: “Honey, you know the kids and I are behind you 100 percent.  We love being with you in the RV, we love all the Motel 6s we’ve stayed at when we could afford them and – if it were up to us – you’d be the nominee in a walk.  After tonight, though, maybe we could take a couple of days off?  See Disneyland?  Take the tour here?  Then we can claim you’re just like Ronald Reagan.  You could get a pin from the gift shop.”

For those looking for something to do between the guffawing and sputtering, let’s do this:  let’s count how many times each candidate says “Reagan” and let’s put our bets down about how many minutes will pass before someone invokes Nancy Reagan as an American heroine.  I’m guessing 12 minutes in and it will be Perry.

– Austin

Recapping the Summer Campaign Season

Oh, what a difference a few months make.

At the end of May, loyal readers may recall that I gave you my sense of how the Republican field for president was shaping up.  At the time, I put four white guys – Romney, Huntsman, Pawlenty and Santorum – in the small category of candidates who could win their party’s nomination and could win in the general.

Turns out I was too generous by half.  Former Governor Pawlenty packed it in a day after a disappointing performance in the Ames straw poll and former Senator Santorum’s performance over the last couple of months suggests to me that he’s in it for the ideology not the office.  That leaves only former Governor Romney and former Governor Huntsman still in the sweet spot (with Huntsman there only out of courtesy as he hasn’t done much of anything since declaring in June).  Jeez, there’s a lot of former officeholders looking for work, isn’t there?

Overall, however, the dynamics of the Republican race haven’t changed much.  Romney is still considered to be the frontrunner by most pundits and many Republicans are still looking for someone else.  In just this year alone, we’ve seen flirtations with Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniel, Michelle Bachmann and – most recently – Rick Perry.  Even with the actual candidacies of the latter two, we’re still hearing wistful longing for more choices such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and others.

As a result of all of this churn, my graphic representations of who’s best positioned to win the nomination and who’s best positioned to win the general have changed a little bit:

Among the most noteworthy changes:

  • The rise and fall of Michele Bachmann.  I hope Ms. Bachmann has enjoyed her star turn because her best days on the campaign trail are behind her.  The entry of Rick Perry sucks away too much of her oxygen and her regularly scheduled lunatic ravings (“”I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’) are not playing well on the larger stage.  While she’s still in the consideration set, my perception is that she’s rapidly falling out of it.  If Michele Bachmann’s candidacy were something actually important – like, say, a nation’s AAA credit rating – we’d have it “under review with negative implications.”
  • The entry of Rick Perry.  Governor Perry is an actual current governor so he’s got that going for him, but it’s interesting to note that after about a week’s worth of infatuation, the GOP intelligentsia started showing signs yet again of restlessness.  It will be interesting to see how the Aggie from west Texas holds up.
  • The fall, fall, fall…fall of Newt Gingrich. Not since 1980 have I seen a major candidate as unprepared for a presidential run as Newt.  You have to go back to Ted Kennedy’s famous Roger Mudd interview in which he blew the softest softball question in presidential political history – “Why do you want to be president?” – to find a candidate screwing up so badly out of the gate.  Kennedy never recovered and Newt won’t either.
  • The thud of Jon Huntsman.  Is he actually running for president?  Damned if I can tell.  Most days he’s invisible and when he does appear most of what he says is unmemorable.  Between his – relative – moderateness and his hesitancy to attack Obama as aggressively as others are doing, he’s often drowned out.
  • The splitting of the field.  Discerning readers will note that the GOP field is bifurcating into a big mass of names around the pole marked “No Way” in terms of winning the GOP nomination.  This is a reflection less of ideology than of logistics.  If you ain’t in it now, the odds that you can get in it to win it are shrinking every day.  Running for president requires money, organization and strategy; if you don’t have a least 2 out of 3 by Labor Day you’re hosed.  Even Sara Palin though she may be crazy enough to think otherwise (that said, I’m about 90 percent sure she’s smart enough to stay out of this melee.

The weakness of the Republican field and the continued inability of its candidates to demonstrate how they can walk the whipsaw of the nomination and the general election continue to be the best thing President Obama has going for him as a re-election strategy. Usually, a sitting president with 9+ percent unemployment, sub-three percent economic growth, high gas prices and an unpopular war would be a one-term shoo-in.  The inability of the Republicans to come together around a viable candidate is the strongest reason he’s still in the game. Well, there’s the billion or so dollars he’s likely to raise, too.

Labor Day marks the unofficial start of the election season and the Iowa caucuses are just about five months away.  As Hank Williams Jr. might say, “Are you ready for some football?”

– Austin

Mini-Michele Steps Onto the Stage

Editor’s note: I just realized I’ve been spelling “Michele” with two “l”s today; this is why we should have copy editors.  Sorry.

Jeez, she’s tiny.  Everything else aside, are we ready for the first five-foot President?

I’m on a streak when it comes to catching GOP candidates declaring their candidacies; last week I got treated to Jon Huntsman in New Jersey.  Now, I’m watching Michele Bachmann’s coming out party in Waterloo.

So far, I’m underwhelmed:

  • Bad stagecraft – the flags and signage are poorly positioned for the cameras
  • Bad speechwriting – as with Mr. Huntsman’s announcement, I’m left wondering if Ms. Bachmann read this speech aloud before today
  • Bad delivery – She’s getting better as she gets into it, but her delivery is rushed and a little flat.

Let’s give Ms. Bachmann and her handlers a little break; this is the biggest stage they’ve ever played and in days of yore a lot of this would have been worked out in less of a glare (the first press conference I ever staged I set the camera angles to give a great shot right up the candidate’s nose but fortunately it was only covered by two stations in Hannibal, MO).

Biggest applause lines so far:

  • “I’m a social conservative.”
  • “I’m a member of the Tea Party.”
  • “Barack Obama will be a one-term president.” This one has become such a signature line for Ms. Bachmann that the audience did a sing-along with her as she spoke it.

She’s reminding the audience of the sacrifice of the Sullivan brothers who grew up in Waterloo and who died in the sinking of the Juneau in World War II.  This set up her call to action close for sacrifice and common purpose.

And we’re done.  Ms. Bachmann is doing the waves and hugs at the lectern to the strains of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”  As an aside, I hope Mr. Petty gets residuals from all the politicians who have appropriated his music for political events.  Same for Mr. Springsteen.

We’ve now segued into Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”. Followed by the classic “I Feel Good” by James Brown and the Stones’ “Start Me Up”  Ms. Bachmann said in her remarks that she wasn’t trying to turn back the clock, but from a musical perspective, it’s 1980 again.

Musical update.  We’ve gotten up to the 21st century – almost – with Jennifer Lopez’ “Lets Get Loud, U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”

This performance was quite restrained in contrast with other Bachmann outings I’ve seen – no “gangsters,” no “anti-Americanisms.”  In fact, much of the red meat one has come to expect from Ms. Bachmann was missing. All in all, however, a decent coming out, significantly better than Mr. Huntsman’s in terms of energy and excitement.  Jason Lewis, who did the introduction, will no doubt have an enjoyable second career for a while as crowd-whipper in chief.  Based on this event, the new Iowa poll and her widely praised performance in the New Hampshire debate, Ms. Bachmann has clearly been on a roll in the last couple of weeks.

Poor Tim Pawlenty.  Like the Highlander series, there can only be one Minnesotan in this race and the very early betting on who’s head will be taken is on Mr. Pawlenty.

– Austin

A Star That Shines Half as Bright…Jon Huntsman Enters Stage Center

I was driving around yesterday listening to POTUS (the single best thing on radio for the political junkie) during Jon Huntsman’s declaration announcement.  I had several thoughts:

  • This guy needs a new speechwriter
  • This guy needs speaker training
  • The crowd sounded like it was 20 people who wandered by
  • What a rational guy
  • The Obama team is right to worry about him in the general election
  • He’ll never make it out of the primaries

While the speech seemed awkwardly worded throughout and Governor Huntsman’s delivery verged on monotonic, I loved some of the sentiment and sensibility I heard. In particular:

Now let me say something about civility. For the sake of the younger generation, it concerns me that civility, humanity and respect are sometimes lost in our interactions as Americans.

Our political debates today are corrosive and not reflective of the belief that Abe Lincoln espoused back in his day, that we are a great country because we are a good country.

You know what I mean when I say that.

We will conduct this campaign on the high road. I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the Office of President.

Of course we’ll have our disagreements. That’s what campaigns are all about.

But I want you to know that I respect my fellow Republican candidates.

And I respect the President of the United States.

He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love.

But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President; not who’s the better American.

When I got home I watched the video and thought it was beautifully staged (something that is apparently a strength of Team Huntsman) but that the flaws I heard were not diminished with the addition of visuals. The crowd was small, the phrasing was goofy and the delivery was about as inspiring as a midlevel manager (I think I heard the words “manage”, “manager” and “management” about 10 times and all in a positive context) talking about the companywide cost-cutting program he was directing.  The weird “motorcycle in the desert” video was beautifully produced and way better than the usual campaign fare (not a waving flag anywhere that I remember), but didn’t add much.

There’s a backlash meme currently making the rounds that Huntsman’s candidacy is a creation of the media that wants Huntsman to be a viable candidate and of the GOP “elite” (that presumably means the “bidness” wing of the party) who does want a reprise of the Goldwater debacle. Maybe that’s right, but unless he steps up his game pretty quickly in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of delivering his message, he’ll quickly lose the attention of both.

About that message…

As I noted, Huntsman could be a viable candidate but I really, really can’t see it selling with the conservative wing of the party.  His record is impure (Cap and trade!  Climate change! Civil unions! Obama!) and his rhetoric of moderation and civility does not resonate with anyone who’s angry about the current administration and its “gangster” ways.  In relatively short order, I think the governor will have to make the hard choice of walking back his commitment to civility or accepting permanent status as a “margin of error” candidate.

I hope he picks the latter, but won’t be shocked if he picks Door #1.

– Austin