Jon Huntsman's record and platform are conservative, but his words and temperament don't match the current conservative style. The liberal mainstream media's embrace of Huntsman and the Republican base's dismissal of him testify to the supremacy of identity politics across the political spectrum.
Huntsman seems to have decided early on to run as a moderate, which earned him the adoration of the press. Type "reasonable Republican" into Google, and the first page of results turns up praise of Huntsman by the mainstream media. The top hit is a Washington Post column condemning "religious warriors and anti-government agitators," and not far down is a glowing piece in the Daily Beast by a co-founder of the organization "No Labels" (motto: "Not Left, Not Right, Forward") extolling Huntsman as "a moderate with centrist appeal."
Huntsman's "centrist appeal" is often cited by centrists and liberals who call him centrist. But is he really "moderate"?
These days, a core liberal effort is tilting our tax code more severely against the wealthy, but Huntsman did the opposite as governor of Utah, creating a flat tax as part of the largest tax cut in state history.
While Rick Santorum is supposedly extreme for his defense of the unborn, Huntsman outlawed second-trimester abortion in Utah and made late-term abortion a felony, while signing every piece of pro-life legislation that came his way.
In the American Conservative magazine, Michael Brendan Dougherty laid out Huntsman's long list of accomplishments on the core conservative issues of "guns, babies, taxes."
Huntsman has some moderate and liberal marks on his record, but far fewer than Mitt Romney, who once ran against Ted Kennedy from the left, and who created the prototype for Obamacare.
Even the various one-time official conservative standard-bearers in this race have records arguably to the left of Huntsman. Herman Cain and Rick Santorum endorsed Romney over more conservative candidates in 2008. Cain supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Santorum championed much of Bush's big-government agenda and saved liberal Arlen Specter from a conservative primary challenge in 2004. Newt Gingrich's dalliances with Nancy Pelosi and Freddie Mac are far to the left of anything Huntsman has done.
So what makes Huntsman a "moderate"? Some point to his participation in the Western Climate Initiative, a gathering of governors discussing possible regional action to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions. But the WCI never produced any policies, serving mostly as a symbolic gesture.
Nearly everything "liberal" about Huntsman is symbolic. His campaign's iconic moment was an unprovoked Twitter comment in which he wrote: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
While politically loaded, this statement is nearly substanceless. A president's "Belie[f] in evolution" has not had any bearing on public policy in a good while. And scientifically, the statement doesn't mean much -- "believing in" something is more the business of faith than science.
And "trust[ing] scientists on global warming," taken literally isn't actually agreement with Al Gore's fevered warnings of 20-foot sea-level rises or endorsement of Democrats' big-government energy proposals.
Science involves detail, nuance, and acknowledgment of uncertainty. Bluster about "believing in science" is just a self-congratulatory liberal trope meant to denigrate conservative rubes from the red states clinging bitterly to their guns and religion.
It's identity politics, and Huntsman is identifying as a liberal or a moderate. That MSNBC hosts and liberal writers fall for this trick is telling, but just as telling is how much conservatives also buy into it.
The depth of the Republican base's immersion in identity politics first struck me when Christine O'Donnell began to surge past liberal Mike Castle in the 2010 Republican Senate primary in Delaware. Conservative writers who criticized O'Donnell's ethics, temperament, seriousness, or electability were blistered as RINOs (Republicans in name only) by radio hosts, emailers and commenters.
The same attacks befell those of us who criticized Newt Gingrich for lobbying for bigger government. "RINO" once applied to Republicans who held many liberal views. It's come to mean any conservative who criticizes the politician who most stridently identifies himself as a conservative -- even when we're criticizing the politician for being liberal.
Huntsman chose to play the game of identity politics, and it hurt him. There's an apt saying that voters don't need to like a candidate, they just need to believe that the candidate will like them. When Huntsman gives off his substance-free liberal signals, he's telling conservatives to buzz off and go back to their Bible class or hunting blind.
If Huntsman fails tomorrow in New Hampshire's primary, it will partly be the consequence of his unwise signaling, but it will also be an indication that the GOP base has put style over substance.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.