The Great Huntsman Hoax

It seems like the announcement came out of nowhere this weekend:

Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. will resign and accept an appointment as ambassador to China, ABC 4 has confirmed.

The official announcement came during a press conference held by President Obama Saturday morning at the White House in the Diplomatic Room.

President Obama asked the people of Utah to forgive him for taking their
Governor but called the China ambassadorship a job, “as important as any
in the world.”

Governor Huntsman said Saturday that he wasn’t looking for a new job,
but “When the President of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that to me is the end of the conversation.”

The reaction by many shocked political junkies was, “What?” The reaction by most others was, “Who?” Huntsman had very little name recognition before the president’s announcement, but his name had surfaced in various places in the past few weeks.

On NBC’s Meet the Press March 29, Sen. John McCain was asked by David Gregory if the former Republican presidential candidate would like to see his running mate become president. His answer was revealing:

“I’d like to see her compete. I think we’ve got some very good candidates: Jon Huntsman and–the problem when I run down these names, I always leave, leave out a, a name–Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty. There’s, there’s so many. There’s a lot of good, fresh talent out there.”

What was remarkable about that answer was not so much McCain’s perceived diss of Sarah Palin, but rather the floating of Huntsman’s name as a serious player in the GOP presidential games of 2012.

Huntsman has close ties to both John McCain and Mitt Romney. The Utah governor signed on to McCain’s presidential campaign very early on – in July of 2006 – and became a co-chairman of McCain’s political action committee, helping coordinate politics and policy for the Arizona senator in the West. His father had been a leading contributor to Romney’s PAC and had expressed his support for a Romney run for the White House. According to reports, the younger Huntsman had been an informal Romney adviser on foreign policy matters.

Until McCain dropped Huntsman’s name onto the MTP round table, however, the Utah governor had not been seen as a major contender for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination. At best, he had received occasional mention as a possible dark horse in the race. His name had also been floated as a potential vice presidential pick by McCain in a Associated Press story in February of last year, but few took it seriously given that both McCain and Huntsman are from Western states, and neither had the kind of appeal to conservatives that turns out the party’s base on election day.

But on May 5, barely five weeks after being mentioned by McCain on the Sunday morning talk show, Huntsman’s name popped up again. On U.S. News’ political gossip blog Washington Whispers, Nikki Schwab posted that there was one potential GOP opponent who makes Obama campaign manager David Plouffe “a wee bit queasy”:

“I think the one person in that party who might be a potential presidential candidate is Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah,” says Plouffe. “I think he’s really out there and speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party.”

Plouffe made sure to add that just four short years ago, Obama “wasn’t even in the conversation” and that the eventual GOP presidential nominee could be “someone that none of us are really talking about right now.” With that wave of the green flag, the drive-by media was off to the races. Nearly every old media outlet breathlessly reported that Huntsman was the one candidate that Obama “fears the most.”

In writing their stories, they contacted political experts guaranteed to help them transform Huntsman into a serious presidential contender. Salt Lake City’s ABC News affiliate KTVX-TV, for example, called on Kirk Jowers of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics:

And Jowers – who has advised three republican presidential candidates – says Huntsman has now, “…become a top five candidate for 2012.”

Well, there’s a mutual fund you can buy into. Just six weeks after McCain rolled out Jon Huntsman 2.0 and the day after the campaign manager for perpetual candidate Barack Obama created the illusion that Team Obama had the little-known Utah governor in block A1 of their threat matrix, Huntsman had made The Top Five.

To put icing on the cake, just eleven days after Plouffe told US News that the prospect of going up against the mighty political steam roller that is Jon Huntsman made him “a wee bit queasy,” we were treated to the political theater of President Obama making the fierce Utah governor an offer he couldn’t refuse. We are led to assume that this was done to “get Huntsman out of the way.” Indeed, on the same day of Obama’s announcement, the Associated Press dutifully spread the meme in a story which was picked up by media outlets across the country:

“With a reach across the political divide for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China, President Barack Obama may have sidelined for now a potentially formidable Republican moderate and possible White House challenger in 2012.”

The key words in that lead-off paragraph are “for now” because, of course, there’s nothing to prevent Huntsman from serving his two years in China and returning to lead the Stupid Party to another defeat at the hands of the Democrats.

A Republican Party with the extremely moderate Huntsman as its candidate would have a hard time turning out the base, no matter how conservative a running mate Huntsman would have to name. The GOP has been down this road before, and even though the 2008 ticket’s Number Two may have saved McCain from a really embarrassing landslide defeat, it’s who occupies the presidential candidate who really determines turnout on election day. Huntsman could pick conservative icon Duncan Lee Hunter himself or even the younger Duncan D. Hunter who now has his father’s former U.S. House seat, and it wouldn’t make any difference – just more crumbs from the table for conservatives.

Saturday’s announcement by the president was John Weaver’s cue to enter, stage left. Weaver, a Huntsman strategist and former close adviser to McCain, managed to get the ear of the Washington Examiner’s respected conservative Chief Political Correspondent Byron York, whose report was published today:

The Republican strategist who helped Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman prepare for a possible presidential run says the Republican party is in for a devastating defeat if its guiding lights are Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney. “If it’s 2012 and our party is defined by Palin and Limbaugh and Cheney, then we’re headed for a blowout,” says strategist John Weaver, who advised Huntsman and was for years a close adviser to Sen. John McCain. “That’s just the truth.”

Weaver is hardly the pinnacle of credibility, and he would be an unlikely poster boy for the virtue of political loyalty:

Weaver, an apparent McCain loyalist, had provided the critical, on-the-record foundation for stories denigrating the senator.

This is not the first time Weaver finds himself in the middle of an uproar. A brooding, volatile, longtime top strategist who serves as a favorite inside source for political reporters, Weaver had a high-profile falling-out with Karl Rove in the late 1980s and a well-publicized reunion with him a decade and a half later. In 2002, Weaver left the Republican Party, worked for Democratic candidates, and then returned to McCain’s side shortly afterward.

Weaver brokered the Romney endorsement of John McCain and orchestrated the public reconciliation between McCain and President Bush after the 2000 primary campaign got really down and dirty:

Putting together that meeting required that he make peace with his old nemesis Rove. Yet during the same campaign, Weaver was reported to be informally advising John F. Kerry and discussing with him the prospect of a Kerry-McCain ticket.

You’ve got to hand it to McCain and the Democrats, however, because this entire Huntsman scam is a beautiful piece of political work. With Huntsman’s hat in the ring, I can guarantee you that McCain will have no trouble naming just one name as the next leader of the GOP. The once obscure Utah governor will receive his earnest endorsement, and all of the names McCain has named as potential standard bearers (plus a few he “forgot”) will have been headed off at the pass in one fell swoop. As an added bonus, McCain gets to serve Romney a cold dish of payback for the sometimes nasty 2008 Republican presidential primaries. Romney can hardly get away with kneecapping Huntsman, a friend and fellow Latter Day Saint. He will be forced to climb aboard the train, with McCain in the engineer’s seat and Team Obama staffing the railroad’s control center. And after stabbing conservatives in the back so many times in the past, he intends to finish them off this time, at least as far as the GOP is concerned.

And so the Maverick Man the drive-by media chose with the blessing of the Democrat Party as the 2008 Republican presidential candidate has chosen his successor for 2012, again with the blessing of the Democrats and the help of their media allies. In the words of candidate Obama, “You can’t make this stuff up, folks.” Maybe not, but someone can… and did. Or maybe I’m just too much of a conspiracy theorist. You decide.

– JP