It’s an indictment of American politics and the conservative movement that the Republican candidate who speaks the most sensibly is running at 1 percent in the polls. Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to China under Barack Obama for nearly two years, displayed a level head, candor and a global perspective during Wednesday’s GOP candidates’ debate held in Simi Valley, California.
For that, his views will be buried in the majority of news accounts because his name is not Rick Perry or Mitt Romney. This debate was essentially set up as a boxing match that pitted the governor of Massachusetts against his counterpart from Texas. Such a dramatic plot buildup left no room for networks or commentators to manoeuvre away from that script. If this was coverage of a sport, an underdog could win with a definitive moment. Multi-candidate political debates rarely have knock-out punches, though, and with eight people on stage and less than two hours of coverage Huntsman and the non-headliners had little opportunity for a game-changing achievement.
Huntsman impressed, nevertheless, answering some questions that showed he’s a right-winger with a conscience. He spoke about the “humanity” that should be involved in immigration policy, the tragedy and “un-American” nature of the “fortress security mentality” the country has adopted since 9/11, and, most distinctly of all, backed science full-heartedly when some of his peers continue to stubbornly declare their disbelief in climate change and evolution.
“We can’t run from science, we can’t run from mainstream conservative philosophy,” Huntsman said, commenting on Republicans’ need to appeal to mainstream, independent voters, millions of whom are educated enough to know humans and velociraptors didn’t co-exist and that extreme flooding and other bizarre weather patterns just may be a hint that something big is happening with the planet. “If we’re going to win in 2012, we have to make sure we have someone who can win the numbers.”
And, yes, it was nice to hear a Republican politician point to Canada and say we are an example to follow.
“Why is it that Vancouver has the fastest-growing real estate market in the world? It’s because they let people in legally and it lifts all boats,” Huntsman, the former Utah governor, said during the immigration discussion.
Of course, no one noted Canada has also held up relatively well during the economic crisis because of stricter banking regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy (oh, and much lower corporate taxes too) and with such a strong social net that it’s a wonder Rush Limbaugh hasn’t gotten around to calling us the Great Red North. Getting the economy in order with solutions adapted from elsewhere would seem utterly foreign to some in the Republican party, which makes listening to most of their leaders painful.
It’s that myopia that hurt the U.S. terribly during the Bush years and the root of the dysfunction — the clan mentality that exists on the political right and left, but especially the right — was demonstrated by the candidates.
Predictably, they all took major shots at Obama and his woeful, chillingly bad record on job creation. The president speaks on Thursday night in a much-anticipated speech that potentially has serious implications for the entire world (no exaggeration). His opponents are already dismissing what he has to say, which is childish and harmful. It’s also a typical our-way-or-no-way response from the U.S. right, which, you would think, would make a good case for paying attention to a seemingly reasonable person like Huntsman. Not this time, though — and probably not next either.
Here are some further thoughts on the Republican debate:
Best exchange of punches: When Romney and Perry went at it early on. Perry said, “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.” Romney hit back with: “As a matter of fact, George Bush created jobs three times faster than you did, Governor.”
Best anti-Obama line: From Romney, who has used it often of late: “This president’s a nice guy. He doesn’t have a clue to get this country going again.”
“Who invited this guy?” moment: When Ron Paul, speaking at a shrine of U.S. conservatism called the Reagan Library, explained that he supported Ronald Reagan from 1976-86 but finally lost confidence in him when the government spending burst. By the time Reagan left office in 1988, the U.S. had a $2 trillion national debt and a deficit of $208 billion (up from $930 billion and $74 billion, respectively, according to this 2004 article from the Washington Post).
Bizarre thought of the night: Paul’s assertion that getting rid of the minimum wage would be better for poor people because they would have a job. The congressman didn’t tell us how flipping burgers for $2 instead of $5 leaves people better off.
Proof Republicans will never stop playing the fear card: When Newt Gingrich tried to make the audience shake by reminding them “there are people out there who want to kill us.” Taking away their guns so they don’t go into fast-food restaurants to mow people down isn’t a solution he proposed, however.
“Call me Ahab” moment: Michele Bachmann, who vehemently opposed the passage of Obama’s health-care reform plan, apparently really can’t stand losing that fight or the thought of giving medical services away. “If we don’t get rid of it in 2012, it will be with us forever and it will be socialized medicine. I won’t rest until I repeal Obamacare,” she said.
Token media-hates-us moment: Gingrich’s call for the candidates “to repudiate every effort by the news media to get Republicans fighting against each other.” It’s a debate, Newt, you’re supposed to differentiate from each other. If you didn’t you’d all be the same and that would be Marxist, wouldn’t it?
Proposed idea that’ll never happen: Herman Cain’s “999” plan to “throw out the current tax code” and replace it with 9 percent taxes on businesses and individuals. It’s not only too extreme, it’s also bad marketing strategy. Flip “999” and you’ve got a number that means trouble in a whole other sense.
Speaking the truth: Perry, surprisingly, was dead on when he called social security a lie. “It won’t be there for 25- and 30-year-olds when they retire,” he said, and he’s correct that everyone should stop denying it. If only he could find the same enlightenment when it comes to climate change, then maybe the earth will be there when those twenty-somethings retire.