Jon Huntsman: in defeat, a win

My Democratic friends always cringe when I say I like Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. Many couldn’t understand what I saw in him. Meanwhile, on Sunday he dropped out of the race, seeing no possible path to the nomination. But in his defeat he has gained a clear win: articulating a vision for politics and public life so many Americans yearn for. My hope is that Huntsman continues to speak out about his vision.

Huntsman is the former two-term governor of Utah, successful businessman, and when President Obama asked him to serve as Ambassador to China he agreed and packed his bags. He received enormous attention and plaudits when he announced his candidacy – known for being a strong conservative and for his inclusive approach.

For instance, when Huntsman’s opponents would chastise President Obama, he would regularly go out of his way to say that no one should question the president’s patriotism. His integrity, love of country, and decency always came through.

Still, he lost, and lost big. He skipped Iowa in order to campaign, and live, full-time in New Hampshire only to finish a disappointing third. He said his showing gave him a “ticket to ride” to South Carolina.

But his real ticket to ride was not to yet another primary state, it was to continue to sound a clear and compelling call for a politics and public life that was more honorable and respectful of the American people. Newspapers and other media outlets liked to describe Huntsman as the “civility” candidate – but too often that was just their way to pat him on his head, dismiss his arguments, and cover the candidates taking a scorched-earth approach.

When Huntsman dropped out of the GOP primary race on Sunday, he said:

This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation’s history.

At its core the Republican Party is a party of ideas, but the current toxic forum for political discourse does not help our cause, and it’s just one of the many reasons the American people have lost trust in their elected leaders.

Of course, Huntsman is not perfect, no one is. To rise onto this stage surely took playing his own brand of hardball politics. But Huntsman believed the country desperately needs to sort out where it wants to go. And what it values most in the direction it chooses. He welcomed debate, disagreements, even dissonance.

He ran his campaign as if he owned it – he believed he must be able to look himself in the mirror every day, come clean with his wife and children, and stick to his guns. The campaign was about more than just politics.

And so on Sunday, he also said this:

Campaigns are an extension of the candidate and the candidate’s family. People who want to personalize and lead with negatives, I disassociate myself from them. Politics has become a business; these advisers in Washington force candidates into alleyways from which there’s no return. But the American public in today’s world is dramatically in need of serious debate, and I don’t think they feel there’s a lot of bandwidth left for personal attacks.

I’d welcome Jon Huntsman in the work of the Harwood Institute, and I hope he remains on the public stage which is where we need him and where he can continue to serve his country with honor.