Jon Huntsman had his moment. It was, unfortunately for his presidential bid, the late winter of 2009.
Then the Republican Party faced a choice: Did Obama’s election raise real questions about the party’s future and identity, as Governor Huntsman told any reporter who would dial the 801 area code from Washington? Or was it, as figures like Haley Barbour argued, merely a moment that would pass? Then Huntsman contemplated an alternate future for Republican Party. They would be modernizers and reformers, less hostile to the role of an activist government that had been vindicated in Obama’s election, and finally untethered from the fantasy of a pure Constitutionalist past worshipped by fringe figures like Rep. Ron Paul.
“It’s just a matter of enduring the early days of transformation – it’s never going to be pretty and it’s never going to be fun to watch it play out beyond a pure entertainment level,” Huntsman told us back then. “We haven’t had a healthy, rigorous discussion about our future in many years, and meanwhile the world has changed. Unless we want to be consigned to minority-party status for a long time, we need to recognize these tectonic shifts happening under our feet.”
There was, though, another argument: Republicans should hold firm, and wait for the Obama delusion to subside. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Congressional “Party of No” made this bet, big, in February of 2009, when they voted en masse against the stimulus. Huntsman found himself immediately isolated inside his party, as opposition trumped modernization. And the Tea Party rose up to cheer the most strident reaction against Obama.
Huntsman wasn’t alone in his fantasy though. The White House, too, feared a Republican Party that reacted against Obama by moving to the middle, and saw Huntsman as the logical future of the GOP. That May, Obama named him Ambassador to Beijing, taking a threat out of the picture.
That didn’t actually take Huntsman out of the picture. And, in retrospect, it was absurd to think that Obama needed to worry about a man so wildly out of step with his party. Huntsman’s campaign has been, from the beginning, a fantasy driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of his own party. (“I still don’t understand why [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel] was so obsessed with him,” a top Democratic official marveled Sunday night.)
The party Huntsman imagined — modernizing, reforming, and youthful — could still be born. That might be the reaction to a second smashing defeat at Obama’s hands, or that might be where President Romney takes his re-election campaign. But it’s now hard to see Huntsman leading that change. He bet, too early, on a fantasy, and ran for the nomination of a party that doesn’t exist, at least not yet. His decision tonight to drop out just marks his recognition of that fact.