The entry of Jon Huntsman into the GOP races inspires great hope for governance-minded Republicanism. Here is a candidate who is intelligent and responsible, who rejects the “all-out war” model of politics, who shows that a father of seven can also be culturally modern and who has integrated the environment into his priorities. All excellent!
But Huntsman has from the outset imposed a dangerous and unnecessary disability on himself. It’s the same one that felled the Rudy Giuliani campaign in 2008, so I speak from painful experience here.
Giuliani had deviated from the ultra-conservative line on abortion, gun rights, and same-sex marriage. He did not feel he could afford any more deviations from ultra-conservative orthodoxy than those. So Giuliani — who could have been the candidate for the voters of Queens and Staten Island, a champion of the Republican middle class — ended up as Mr. Conservative on all tax and economic issues.
The same fate seems to be overtaking Jon Huntsman, alas. Having bucked the party on greenhouse gases and same-sex unions, Huntsman has signed up for 100 percent endorsement of the Ryan plan.
I can see the logic. Genuflecting at the Ryan altar is deemed inescapable and essential for credibility in 2012. A social conservative like a Mike Huckabee might (barely) evade the obligation, but a libertarian-stye candidate like Huntsman cannot and dare not. To the extent that Huntsman has his eye on a second run in 2016 — well by then the Ryan plan will be forgotten by the general electorate even as it pays dividend in continuing fiscal credibility with the party faithful. So: I get it.
The trouble is, however, that this solution defines the problem in purely party-political terms. The Ryan plan answers a narrow Republican concern: how do we push taxes even lower in the face of the impending retirement of the baby boom). It disregards the broader national concern: how can we sustain and enhance the standard of living of the American middle class against the downward trend in middle-class incomes of the past dozen years? The Ryan plan tragically abdicates this question.
We need reform-minded Republicans like Jon Huntsman to confront that question with at last a credible response.