Huntsman’s Appeal & The Politics of Personality
In a post about Huntsman’s Perplexing Appeal, Elias wrote:
Another way of saying the same thing is that, for a politician, Huntsman seems semi-normal and almost kind of cool. We — Lefties and Righties alike — tend to unconsciously assume that someone we like not only likes us in return but is like us, too. So while it’s probably the case that some Democrats like Huntsman because so many Republicans don’t, I’d guess that what’s happening is actually simpler and even more superficial: they just like the guy, and any policy-based cognitive dissonance is shrugged off or waved away.
I could be wrong, but I think there is something else going on here. Particularly among us wonky sorts. I can’t speak to the left’s motivations, as I am not among them. But I can speak, at least to some extent, as to why a moderate or moderate-conservative would sign on with Huntsman. In addition to having a cooler persona than the other Republicans, Huntsman is interesting. For those of us that like political discussion, he seems to be the most likely candidate to actually deliver it. Presidential debates between Huntsman and Obama would be interesting (and not just because one used to work for the other). And if Huntsman is more conservative than he lets on? All the better! It would draw a great contrast during the election discussion. Huntsman could even help redefine the right into something less piquish and flesh things out.
Huntsman may be conservative, but he is also (if that) a different sort of one. He has gone after the banks in a way that few other candidates have. His platform includes opening up energy exploration and eliminating oil subsidies. These are things he seems ready and able to talk about. The other Republicans, for the most part, don’t.
Right now we have a Democratic Party lead by a man that has only a vague idea of where he actually wants the country to go. I don’t mean that as an insult. Sail-setting is one of the premier jobs of the presidency. And, of course, we have a Republican Party that is trying to press on with its electoral coalition without defining a (realistic) governing one. Unless Romney’s next face is one radically different from the ones he has shown so far, we are in for a pretty depressing election. Huntsman, I believe, and I believe a lot of other people believe (whether they have articulated this belief or not) would provide for something more interesting. The degree to which the two men are tied together limit the likelihood of Satan Incarnate arguments (not that people wouldn’t try).
This is a political geek’s dream. And a wonk’s dream.
On a less high-minded note, it’s also easy to back a candidate when they’re not likely to win. The downsides are less “real” when they’re less likely to be in a position to execute them. Right now Huntsman is being compared to a bunch of people spouting a lot of righty rhetoric. Put him up against Obama, and the perspective changes. Huntsman’s cool demeanor is less remarkably because Obama has the same. He starts going after Obama and stops going after other Republicans, so one of the big things they like about him dissipates. His policy ideas become more important. Huntsman would be further proof of oh-so-concerned tut-tutting about how the Republicans have Lost Their Way.
Ultimately, though, it’s one thing to have strong disagreements with someone that you think you can have a conversation with. It’s another thing to have an argument with someone that’s hurling insults your way. The vast majority of the time, you’re going to prefer the former. This gets to what Elias was saying about personality mattering. I would argue, though, that it is not entirely frivolous. A big part of the presidency is how you respond to the incoming missiles (figuratively speaking). Another part is the 100,000 decisions they make outside the public’s eye. We don’t know what the issues are going to be from 2013-16. Who they are matters.
It may be foolish to think that we have any idea who Jon Huntsman (or Barack Obama, for that matter) actually is. Some, like Mitt Romney, seem to go out of their way to make sure that you have no idea. But even aside from that, everyone wants to project a positive image (especially politicians). I do believe, however, that the temptation is there for a reason. And that there are limits to the degree to which they can pretend.