In other words, move over Mitt Romney. The battle for the “heart and soul” of the GOP – and for control over its war-fighting strategy in 2012 – is about to get underway.
Huntsman, of course, is already something of a party gadfly for having served in the Obama administration, and for having endorsed its “stimulus” package – in fact, he’s even argued, much like the Democratic left, that the package should have been bigger. He’s also striking a broader bipartisan note on policy by suggesting that compromise with Democrats on thorny issues like immigration and cap-and-trade may also be needed – in part, to rescue Republicans from their well-deserved reputation as the “party of no”.
And then, of course, there’s foreign policy. While even Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann has opposed Obama’s Libya intervention, no one in the GOP has gone as far as Huntsman – other than libertarian Ron Paul, of course – in questioning the broader thrust of American foreign and defence policy. Huntsman not only wants the troops in Afghanistan and Libya brought home, and soon – in fact, much sooner than Obama – he even thinks the “soft-power” tools of trade and diplomacy should supplant military interventionism. For some Republicans, Huntsman not only sounds like a dreaded “rino” – a Republican in name only – he’s also becoming something potentially far worse: an ideological Trojan horse for the Democrats, and a veritable Obama-clone at that, inside the Republican field.
So where does Rick Perry stand on foreign policy? He’s actually been pretty tight-lipped, and some optimists have even held out hope that, like Bachmann, Perry might have the conservative chops to weigh in behind a somewhat less “adventurous” foreign policy, even if, ironically, it seems to put the GOP to the “left” of Obama. But Perry was a captain in the US Air Force, flying C-130s in the Middle East, and he endorsed Rudy Giuliani in 2008 on the assumption that the former New York City mayor would “take the war” to the terrorists, and uphold America’s “traditional” security interests. Which means he’s far more likely to join Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and especially Tim Pawlenty, who just delivered a hawkish speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, in calling for a return to neoconservative “orthodoxy”.
One thing’s for sure, though: should Perry enter the race, as so any expect him to, it will add further momentum to the rightward shift that’s already occurring. And with, on one side, Huntsman seeking to capture moderates in key states like New Hampshire and South Carolina that will hold “open” primaries next year – allowing unusually large numbers of independents to vote alongside registered Republicans – and with, on the other side, Bachmann, and perhaps Perry, calling for an embrace of the Tea Party agenda, Romney is in danger of being drowned out between a voice of reason and the loudly banging drums of rage.
In 2008, the country – and even some Republicans – chose reason. But no one expected the recession to last this long, or joblessness to prove so persistent. The public’s not just anxious over the state of the economy; it senses that the American Dream itself is fading into oblivion, never to return. Huntsman says we can still be reasonable – in fact, we have to be – to regain our footing, and to thrive again. And he sees no contradiction between extolling the virtues of the free market, while maintaining a “civil” debate with the Democrats.
Perhaps he’s right, but judging from the buzz about Perry, on top of the growing profile of Bachmann (who just pulled even Romney in the polls in Iowa), for most Republicans, the season of rage is just starting.