WHAT HUNTSMAN IS UP TO, I THINK
Jonathan Bernstein has been thinking about Jon Huntsman's apparent decision to run for president in 2012 (here, here, and here), and he's concluded that a 2012 run makes little sense (for the obvious reason that the frequently right-centrist and obviously collaborationist Huntsman is a bad fit with the 2012 GOP electorate), and that it doesn't even make a lot of sense as a warm-up for 2016 (because even a pretty good performance in one year's primaries doesn't necessarily enhance a candidate's standing in future rounds, and a bad performance can really hurt).
I basically agree with all this -- but I think I know what Huntsman's doing. He's not running to win the nomination. He's not running to raise his profile generally. He's running specifically to beat Mitt Romney (or at least to embarrass him).
Right now, Romney is the undisputed champion of the non-crazy remnant of the Republican Party -- McCain's never going to run for president again, and Giuliani is yesterday's man. Mitt may not win the nomination, but he's the clear front-runner among old-school, pre-tea-party, pre-death-before-compromise Republicans.
But if Huntsman makes serious inroads with these voters, if he takes so many of them away from Romney that Romney's vote totals fall far below expectations, then Romney will probably throw in the towel at long last and accept the fact that he'll never be president -- and Huntsman will be the King of the Non-Crazies, just in time for 2016, when a lot of Very Smart People think the GOP will come to its senses and abandon its current extremism.
Now, I don't happen to think the GOP electorate will be any less crazy in 2016 than in 2012. (Assuming this follows eight years of Obama? Are you kidding? They're going to mellow out?) But I think most savants think otherwise. And I bet Huntsman does, too. So he hopes he'll have the Romney slot next go-round -- and maybe a bunch of wingnutty, teabaggy types will split the rest of the vote and leave him the nomination.
I essentially agree with Bernstein about Huntsman, but I really, really disagree with what he says (here and here) about Romney's chances next year:
I'm a little skeptical of the belief that Mitt Romney has a health care problem, at least as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president...
Will it make him clearly unacceptable to activists who might otherwise have little interest, but not actively try to veto his selection? I doubt it.... Sure, it could be one-too-far, but there's no way that health care individual mandates is as big a deal to GOP activists as abortion (and there's no organized group that really cares about it, either)....
What about ... the mass electorate of the primaries and caucuses next year? They’re a lot less likely to be focused on issues, and in most cases they'll follow opinion leadership....
Obamacare and its kissing cousin, Romneycare, don't make the blood of GOP activists boil? Really? Do teabaggers no longer count as "GOP activists"? They hate every letter, punctuation mark, and space break in the health care law, not just the individual mandate.
And as for the rank and file: they're "a lot less likely to be focused on issues"? That's crazy. They're going to be focused on nothing but issues -- whatever issues Fox and talk radio and the Koch brothers want them to be focused on. "In most cases they'll follow opinion leadership"? What -- the way they "followed opinion leadership" in choosing Senate candidates in Delaware and Alaska and Nevada and Utah and Kentucky? Please -- that isn't going to happen. They're angry. They're going to stay angry.