A very popular theory on Jon Huntsman’s, um, unique march toward the center is that it’s all part of a well-thought out scheme to win the presidential nomination next time around. The scenario laid out by various pundits is basically this: Next year, the GOP nominates a conservative a la Perry or Bachmann, who then loses to Obama. After a few demoralizing years of congressional losses, Republicans begin looking for a moderate messiah to lead them out of the wilderness in 2016 and Huntsman, having built his credentials in 2012, becomes the natural choice. Never mind that the congressional picture looks pretty good for the GOP in 2012 and that predicting dominant political trends for Nov 8, 2016, is about as useful as forecasting that day’s weather. There’s a much simpler explanation for Huntsman’s conservative-scolding:He needs some way, any way, to stand out.
Huntsman’s biggest problem is that there are basically two CliffsNotes versions of his candidacy: He’s either “the guy who worked for Obama for two years” Or “the Mormon technocratic former governor. No. A different one.” The former is obviously no way to run for the Republican nomination and the latter is taken. Mitt Romney was there first, has arguably had an easier time papering over his various apostasies, and has been winning the electability argument from the beginning. Huntsman can’t really try to bank sharp right or win on social issues. Romney tried that and failed in ’07/’08. and anyway, the Bachmanns and Perrys of the race aren’t going to be beat on their own turf. So with near zero traction in the polls and hopes of challenging Romney in more temperate contests such as New Hampshire’s, Huntsman’s been skirting left by sheer necessity, looking for any way to distinguish himself from the rest of the field. His pointedly non-interventionist stance on Afghanistan and Libya, and “pro-science” spiel on evolution and climate are good examples.
That being said, why can’t all this be part of some well thought out long-game to win in 2016? Well, for starters, it doesn’t appear to be so well thought out. Huntsman has completely reversed (as all presidential candidates eventually do) his original pledge to run a kinder, gentler campaign. “There’s a simple reason our party is nowhere near being a national governing party,” Huntsman-whisperer John Weaver told Esquire back in June. “No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.” And never mind what Huntsman was telling TIME in May. He’s now out there making Obama teleprompter cracks and giving the DNC ample fodder to knock the “zero substance” GOP field. There’s also some inconsistency to his supposed strategy. If his centrist tack was a premeditated plot to eschew 2012 for 2016, wouldn’t he have raised his hand at the Iowa debate when the candidates were asked if any of them would accept a deficit reduction deal that achieved $10 in spending cuts for $1 in tax increases. What’s more likely: that Huntsman’s engaging in an elaborate five-year-long moderation political dance or that he overestimated his own appeal in the race and is now looking for some way to make an impression?