It’s no secret that the potential GOP presidential candidates with the greatest appeal for libertarians either stayed out of the race or haven’t done very well. Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan fall in the former category. Gary Johnson, whom I praised here, has failed to gain traction and looks like he may drop out soon. Ron Paul, of course, is still in the race. But it seems unlikely that he will improve much on his 2008 performance, when he failed to win even a single primary. And, for reasons I explained at length during the 2008 campaign, Paul has many shortcomings as a libertarian protest candidate (see also here).
Given this state of affairs, some libertarians and pro-limited government conservatives are taking another look at Jon Huntsman. Here is George Will praising Huntsman in a recent column criticizing the GOP front-runners. Athough Will is a conservative, his reasons for preferring Huntsman are all based on libertarian issues:
Jon Huntsman inexplicably chose to debut as the Republican for people who rather dislike Republicans, but his program is the most conservative. He endorses Paul Ryan’s budget and entitlement reforms. (Gingrich denounced Ryan’s Medicare reform as “right-wing social engineering.”) Huntsman would privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Gingrich’s benefactor). Huntsman would end double taxation on investment by eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends. (Romney would eliminate them only for people earning less than $200,000, who currently pay just 9.3 percent of them.) Huntsman’s thorough opposition to corporate welfare includes farm subsidies. (Romney has justified them as national security measures — food security, somehow threatened. Gingrich says opponents of ethanol subsidies are “big-city” people hostile to farmers.) Huntsman considers No Child Left Behind, the semi-nationalization of primary and secondary education, “an unmitigated disaster.” (Romney and Gingrich support it. Gingrich has endorsed a national curriculum.) Between Ron Paul’s isolationism and the faintly variant bellicosities of the other six candidates stands Huntsman’s conservative foreign policy, skeptically nuanced about America’s need or ability to control many distant developments.
Eduardo J. Lopez-Reyes of the Republican Liberty Caucus recently wrote his own “Libertarian Case for Jon Huntsman.” Libertarian political scientist Jason Sorens put in a plug for Huntsman back in May.
What do I think? I am not sure. Huntsman is nowhere near as libertarian as I am, and probably also significantly less libertarian than Gary Johnson. On the other hand, Huntsman is clearly much more libertarian than Mitt Romney and New Gingrich, the current Republican front-runners. And unlike several of the other candidates he seems knowledgeable and competent. I think it’s also pretty obvious that he’s more libertarian than President Obama. It’s unrealistic for libertarians to expect a viable presidential candidate who agrees with us down the line. What is realistic is seeking one who will make federal policy significantly more libertarian than it is today.
Should Huntsman reach the general election, he should also be able to well. He’s less likely to scare moderate voters than Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Michele Bachmann, and as far as I know he doesn’t have any embarrassing scandals on his record. A candidate who is scandal-free, seems knowledgeable, and doesn’t scare moderates, would have a good shot against an unpopular incumbent saddled with a bad economy.
The key question about Huntsman is whether he has any real chance of winning the GOP nomination. So far, he hasn’t done well in the polls. His big problem is that people perceive him as a liberal or moderate Republican similar to Mitt Romney, even though on most fiscal and economic issues he’s well to the right of Romney and sometimes Gingrich too. To date, Bachmann, Perry, and Herman Cain have all foundered in their efforts to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney. If Gingrich, the current anti-Romney of the month, falters as well, perhaps Huntsman will get a shot at the spotlight. Obviously, however, time is running short for him.