Jon Huntsman Picks Up a South Carolina Endorsement

Pundits and voters alike make politicians out to be more than what they are.

It’s probably too little too late for Jon Huntsman, but the Mandarin-speaking ex-governor and ambassador can tuck the endorsement of South Carolina’s The State under his belt:

Mr. Huntsman is a true conservative, with a record and platform of bold economic reform straight out of the free-market bible, but he’s a realist, whose goal is likewise to get things done. Under his leadership, Utah led the nation in job creation, and the Pew Center on the States ranked it the best-managed state in the nation.

He also is head and shoulders above the field on foreign policy. He served as President George H.W. Bush’s U.S. ambassador to Singapore and President George W. Bush’s deputy U.S. trade representative and U.S. trade ambassador, and the next entry on that resume is even more impressive: He was a popular and successful governor in an extremely conservative state, well positioned to become a leading 2012 presidential contender, when Mr. Obama asked him to serve in arguably our nation’s most important diplomatic post, U.S. ambassador to China. It could be political suicide, but he didn’t hesitate. As he told our editorial board: “When the president asks you to serve, you serve.”

We don’t agree with all of Mr. Huntsman’s positions; for but one example, he championed one of the nation’s biggest private-school voucher programs. And with George Will calling him the most conservative candidate and The Wall Street Journal editorial page endorsing his tax plan, independent voters might find less to like about his positions than, say, Mr. Romney’s or Newt Gingrich’s.

What makes him attractive are the essential values that drive his candidacy: honor and old-fashioned decency and pragmatism. As he made clear Wednesday to a room packed full of USC students on the first stop of his “Country First” tour, his goal is to rebuild trust in government, and that means abandoning the invective and reestablishing the political center.

One really is forced to recall, when reading things like this, how much of politics is style not substance. The pragmatic center-right independents are drawn to Huntsman’s demeanor as much as anything. Even if his record is far to the right of where they’d like to be, his “honor and old-fashioned decency” are enough to carry the day. I’m sympathetic to this, though I find it ultimately less persuasive than policies which I actually agree with. Of course, since we can’t trust any politician to stick to their guns on policy, maybe demeanor really does matter.

On the flip side you have the Herman Cains of the world, men who aren’t really all that conservative – who don’t really even know the proper conservative talking points – but who make waves with voters because of their folksiness or their willingness to come across as extreme. Who cares that Newt Gingrich’s record is pocked with glaring betrayals of conservative orthodoxy, three marriages, and a history of lobbying. The fact that he can talk the talk and call the Obama administration a “secular socialist machine” is all it takes.

Liberals have been suckered in by candidates as well. No better example comes to mind than Mr. Obama himself, a man whose record and statements portrayed him as every bit the centrist Democrat and liberal internationalist but whose many fans saw in his message of hope and change something far greater.

Something to remember when placing our eggs in lonesome baskets. Ron Paul has gathered about him a huge, diverse, and most importantly die-hard following. What if, in the end, he turned out to be just another politician? And what if our pragmatic, charming Jon Huntsman turns out to be just another boiler-plate Republican with a trigger finger?

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.