Earlier this week, Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. After finishing third in New Hampshire, the state where he had put nearly all his money and time, he couldn’t continue on to South Carolina. This two-term Utah governor, Ambassador to Singapore (for Pres. George W. Bush) and Ambassador to China (for Pres. Obama), was suspending his campaign after catching the eye of the few educated, moderate, ‘Country-Club Republicans’ that are left in the GOP. His campaign message never appealed to the voters, and his style — civil, calm and a bit like the nasally know-it-all from your philosophy discussion section — fell flat. He didn’t ‘feel’ right.
Now, Jon Huntsman is a conservative. When compared to likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Huntsman is far more of the ‘consistent conservative’ that GOP voters claim to want. But most of the Huntsman campaign, until the last few months of all-in for New Hampshire, involved faux pas that telegraphed “moderate and pragmatist.” He seemed more NPR, than FOX News.
That word, “seem,” is key. In the 20 or so TV debates so far this election, most of the candidates have said mostly the same things on questions about issues. Low taxes, repeal Obamacare, end Dodd-Frank, etc. Sometimes they’ve nit-picked minor differences, sometimes they’ve forgotten the 3 agencies they’ve wanted to cut (God bless your heart, Gov. Perry), but it’s really never been about stark policy differences. Huntsman, with the phrasing and intonation of his remarks, has seemed like the moderate one willing to compromise with those who disagree with him (in the beginning, he actually said he was going to be the “civil” alternative). Romney seems that way too, but Romney has learned to hit all the no-compromise, fire-breathing, ideological G-spots.
Sadly, the takeaway here is about the triumph of style over substance. Presidential campaigns will always be about showmanship to some degree. That’s not even a bad thing, because compelling presidents have got to captivate, especially in an age where a speech in Cleveland, Ohio can inspire a child watching online from Egypt to run down to Tahrir and join the protests for real democracy. As a political communications person, I know there were many superior ways to spin Huntsman (how about: rugged outlaw, Western conservative from Utah?). Yet, Huntsman never found a narrative that stuck and he caught fire too late to even come close to winning his one shot at an actual frontrunner spot.
People in ‘Real America’ hate the politicians that say what people want to hear but do whatever they want once elected. Now, we’ve gotten to a point where saying “I’m going to tell people things they don’t want to hear” is a great applause line on the stump. But, you know what? Few Americans are even paying attention. Whether they have good reason to tune out with a 10-15 percent approval of Congress is up for argument. But when those voters elect people, they need the best information. Ignoring the process, then throwing your hands up, watching a few sound-bites on the news, and casting your ballot isn’t the way to fix this miserable election process.
So, Huntsman didn’t properly sell himself, despite his superior record on the merits. Shame on him for realizing running for President of the United States is about telling a convincing story — real, fiction or science-fiction. But, shame on us for not paying more attention — for settling for 10 second clips instead of full-debate viewings.