Huntsman And Perry: The Importance Of The So-Called “Superficial” Qualities Of Candidates
Today Jon Huntsman, to the lament of no one outside of his family, friends, employees and the news media, dropped out of the GOP nomination race.
Rick Perry, to the thrill of no one outside of his family, friends and a die-hard band of supporters remains in the race but has as much chance as the departed Huntsman of winning it.
On the surface these two candidates could not be more different. Huntsman ran on an open disdain for conservatives, while Perry has picked up on any issue he thinks will help connect him with the party’s base, yet they share the fate of being “also rans” in a year when the presumptive nominee is incredibly weak. But the reasons these two very different candidates failed to catch on with voters are however very similar.
Let me start with Huntsman.
The former Utah governor was always going to be the harder sell to GOP voters. His support for a larger “stimulus” plan and time spent as Obama’s Ambassador to China were always going to be big problems. Still, they should have been manageable. In a cycle the GOP is likely to nominate the father of the individual health insurance mandate, a lot of minor heresies could be overlooked.
Huntsman did however come out with a rather strong conservative platform…support for the Ryan Plan (much to the chagrin of uber-moderate David Frum), a pro-growth tax plan to the right of just about anyone in the field (certainly compared to Romney). Yes, he’s to the left of the party (but not the country) on Afghanistan and civil unions (again, not the country). Otherwise he’s a fairly mainstream conservative that even moderates and liberals at least had to pretend wasn’t “extreme”.
Perry on the other hand from entitlement reform to taxes and attacking Obama is a red meat machine for conservatives. He’s also the only candidate that didn’t have to back away from global warming and/or mandate statements (other than Ron Paul who doesn’t count).
On paper, it should have been Perry in a walk with Huntsman a pretty close second. But elections, like sporting events aren’t only about what’s “on paper”. Elections are about flesh and blood people competing in the market place of ideas, organizing on the ground and convincing enough actual voters to support them. A great record paired with good plans aren’t enough. That’s where both Perry and Huntsman fell short.
Huntsman simply came off as someone invested in convincing a bunch of people their political beliefs are insane and he was the man to cure them.
“I believe in the ideas put forward by Theodore White, the cycles of history,” Huntsman told POLITICO. “I believe we are in one such cycle. I think that cycle ultimately takes us to a sane Republican Party based on real ideas.”
Unfortunately for him, not enough voters agreed with his diagnosis of them and declined to support him, even though based on record and policy proposals he should have done better. His open contempt for the real ideas the spurred Republican gains in 2010 simply overcame everything else.
Perry on the other hand comes off as a dunce. I don’t think he is but that doesn’t change the fact that you simply can’t tell voters to ignore what they’ve seen for 5 months isn’t true or important. You can talk about the relative unimportance of debates, Perry’s long record of conservative governance and complain about tender feelings over “you don’t have a heart” all you want but voters are going to base their decsions on what they want, not what partisans think are the proper factors. The Perry people see on the trail simply doesn’t match the praise he receives from his supporters. When all is said it done, it’s up to the candidate, not his supporters to close the deal. Perry simply can’t pass the smell test as a credible candidate, let a alone actually be the President of the United States.
My point in illustrating the similar problem these two very different candidates have is people often say that it’s issues and records that should matter the most. The simple fact is…they don’t. If they did, Romney wouldn’t have a sniff of the nomination in this environment but he’s seen (incorrectly in my opinion) as having the best chance of beating Obama. That’s trumping everything else right now. Perry’s loyal band of supporters often bemoan the hurt feelings over “you don’t have a heart” but things like that matter, a lot. If they didn’t, why weren’t more Perry supporters willing to take a look at Huntsman and his record when Perry faltered? Mostly because Huntsman comes off as an obnoxious jerk.
The fact is picking a candidate (at least in the primary) is not a science or even an art. It’s a gut thing. We simply can’t know how someone will act when they become President, nor can we predict what they will face once there. I doubt anyone voting in 2000 for George W. Bush really thought about how he’d respond to a 9/11 type event or what kind of Commander in Chief he’d make in two Asian land wars. Stuff happens. We have to try and figure out who has the right make up and mix of experience to deal with anything that might come up.
We also try and figure out who we’re willing to put up with on a near daily basis for 4 years. That’s why I think most elections come down to “who would you rather have a beer with?” (at least for non-ideological partisans). We can bemoan this but part of conservatism is dealing with the world as it is, not as we’d like to be.
Huntsman and Perry both had compelling arguments to make as to why there conservative records and plans made them legitimate prospects, for better or worse, the way they presented themselves simply failed to connect with voters.