We are in a new age, though no one knows yet just how long it will last or what it all means. Republicans and Democrats sat together during the State of the Union. Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell worked together on a major tax bill. Keith Olbermann is gone from MSNBC. Michele Bachmann has been cast into the outer rings of awkward third-party video responses. However fleeting, we are in an era of moderation.
Consider this: For three straight elections, 2006, 2008 and 2010, the edges took control of the political discourse. Moderation had failed the country. The centrist consensus had led us into a quagmire in Iraq. It had led us to stagnating wages, increasing health care costs, and a general sense of national decline, followed by sudden economic cataclysm in the collapse of Lehman Brothers. So the edges rose up. Democrats ran to the left and convinced independents to throw the bums out in 2006 and 2008. The victors offered change. And then the change arrived, and the independents wanted their money back. One painful war replaced another painful war. The unemployment rate skyrocketed. Lobbyists and special interests still dominated Washington. Insufferable senators bickered over health care charts. The economic malaise did not end. So Republicans ran to the right and convinced independents to throw the bums out in 2010.
And now both parties know they are mortal. And neither wants to be slayed again. They both strive to perform. The American people, meanwhile, seem to have tired by the ideological din of endless outrage that has become the national conversation. The crazy gunman in Tucson had no clear rhyme or reason, but he gave the nation an opportunity to check itself in the mirror and not like what it saw. Suddenly John McCain was praising Barack Obama, and Barack Obama was standing alongside Jan Brewer. Everyone seemed to realize just how silly they had all become. Olbermann’s indignant thesaurus had run out of words. And here is where the 2012 theory of moderation comes in. It says that the 2012 election will not be like the 2008 election. Like all national elections, it will be a contest for independent votes. And independents are tired of just throwing the bums out. They don’t want more outrage. They want someone to get the job done.
This is the theory of Jon Huntsman for president. Under the rules of 2006, 2008 and 2010, Huntsman doesn’t stand a chance. He has been working for Obama as ambassador to China. He’s been one of the bums–a traitor, implicated, comprimised, weak-kneed, white-bread, lacking in a stiff partisan spine. “I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary,” President Obama joked a couple weeks back. But what if 2012 isn’t like those other elections?
“Everybody is gaming out 2012 as if it will be 2010, and it’s not,” said one Republican laying the groundwork for a Huntsman bid, in an interview with CNN’s campaign ace Peter Hamby today. What if in 2012 moderation rules? What if competence is a more important message than ideological difference? What if having worked with Obama is an asset? What if reasonableness trumps outrage? What if people don’t just want to throw the bums out, because they tried that three times and it hasn’t really worked?
Under this scenario, one would still need to pass certain ideological tests to get out of the primary, which Huntsman probably can. Pro-life, pro-gun, rides motocross, and his gray highlights are even slicker looking than Mitt Romney’s. Then he would replace Obama not by blasting him as a socialist, but by simply pointing out his missteps and excesses, and denying him ownership of the political center. Obama, who is clearly reading the same polling, is now working hard to claim this space. He thinks it will get him another four years. But what if he gets there and finds someone else is already there, revving a motor bike?
Yes, this is all a crazy long shot talk, but John Weaver, Huntsman’s main political adviser, loves long shots who scramble the partisan algebra. (Huntsman plans to resign on April 30. If he wants to make the first Republican presidential debate, he has two days to prepare.) Members of the Obama Administration still dismiss the whole concept, because after all, they can’t exactly argue that Huntsman, the star ambassador, would make a bad president. “It’s hard to imagine a massive moderate reaction that will give birth to Huntsman,” one senior administration official told the Washington Post Monday. Damn right it’s hard. But other things have been hard to imagine too. Like a newcomer named Barack Hussein Obama toppling the Clinton dynasty to claim the White House.