Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why are the Republicans snubbing their one (semi-)sane candidate?

With enemies like these, Obama has very little need of friends. The ballistic rise of the reptilian governor of Texas, Rick Perry, to leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in barely a month on the campaign trail confirms a number of invaluable lessons for any other GOP hopefuls aiming to mount a last-minute dash for the White House. First and foremost, be a Christian fundamentalist, with unshakeable conviction in the absolute inerrancy of scripture; by no means excluding the biblical account of human ‘creation’. With commensurate fanaticism, oppose all tax increases of any kind, whilst at the same time making loud complaints about the fiscal deficit and, indeed, creating a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall in your own state. Be utterly contemptuous of the intellectual in general and the scientific in particular. Praise capital punishment – indeed, if you happen to be the governor of a state which murders its criminals, boast warmly about the number of deaths for which you have personally been responsible. Declare undying ideological fraternity, or filiality, with Ronald Reagan, even while in fact advocating positions on anything from taxation to illegal immigration that are leagues to the right of anything the senile statesman ever signed into law. Finally, just to distinguish yourself, find a niche subject about which to make a statement of forehead-smacking fatuity, such as referring to the social security system that sustains the welfare of 54 million retired, disabled or otherwise dependent Americans as a “Ponzi scheme”

Such has more or less been the template for all the major GOP candidates this year – from Perry to the Mormon fruitcake Mitt Romney to the fantastically ignorant Michele Bachmann (whose campaign is at least, or at last, showing signs of decline). Yet against this orthodoxy of cultism and crackpottery, there sounds a lone voice of what bears an alarming resemblance to something almost like reason. The voice belongs to the former governor of Utah and ambassador to both Singapore and China, Jon Huntsman, a polished and erudite speaker whose composed and cool-headed manner has already been compared to that of the incumbent Democrat. With his soundbite-friendly description of himself as a ‘centre-right candidate for a centre-right country’, Huntsman appears to be the only Republican candidate of the lot to realise – as surely all educated Republican voters have been growling into their Journals since Sarah Palin announced that homo sapiens cohabited the earth with dinosaurs – that the anti-intellectual demagogy of the Tea Party and its affiliates is not only a shameful spectacle of stupidity in itself but moreover the greatest contributing factor to the utter unelectability of most GOP candidates in the eyes of every ‘moderate’ voter:

When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.

One is fondly reminded of Dr Francis Collins, the eminent geneticist and evangelical Christian who wrote in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief to the effect that Christians only do themselves harm by rejecting evolution, and the sooner they grow up and repudiate the pathetic pseudo-science of ‘intelligent design’, the immediately more credible will be their standing not only in the scientific community, but in the broader community of educated persons. 

Nor is this by any means the limit of Huntsman’s appeal as a candidate. In an election that everyone seems to agree will be decided on matters economic, Huntsman brings formidable credentials. Indeed, he can claim to rival Rick Perry’s much-touted ‘economic miracle’ in terms of job creation; Utah having led the country in exactly that respect during his gubernatorial tenure (by one method of counting). A profile in Vogue further elucidates the highlights of that period:

In office, he took progressive stands on immigration and the environment, signing on to a Western-states agreement to reduce carbon emissions. His big emphasis was on economic growth and job creation. Cutting the state income tax from 7 to 5 percent helped fuel business investment that by 2007 brought Utah’s jobless rate down to 2.3 percent—the lowest in its history. The resulting bonanza in revenue allowed the state not only to avoid spending cuts but to make investments, such as raising pay to attract better teachers. The kind of intelligent long-term planning that the Pew Center for the States cited in listing Utah as one of the three most well-managed states in the country helped boost Huntsman’s approval rating above 90 percent. Reforming antediluvian liquor laws and using his state’s natural wonders as a backdrop for his motorcycle rides didn’t hurt either. In 2008, he was reelected by a wide margin.

That Huntsman could simultaneously reduce income taxes and carbon emissions, while also making it easier for a guy to get a glass of bourbon in a hotel room, illustrates well his admirably – perhaps better say refreshingly – human brand of conservatism. That he is also a polyglot who has (like the current President) lived for several years outside the United States is surely not to be overlooked lightly, either.

Of course, he is hardly without shortcomings. He’s laden with much of the standard 'pro-life', anti-homo reactionism that any self-styled proponent of the ‘family values’ contingent might be expected to carry (though it is, I suppose, to his credit that he’s unopposed to gay civil unions). On foreign policy he is especially discouraging: objecting, for instance, to American participation in the NATO intervention in Libya – which was, I need hardly remind my reader, a strictly humanitarian operation, solicited not just by the Arab League but also by brave defectors from the Libyan regime itself, for the protection of the long-suffering victims of one of the Middle East’s cruellest and most obstinate despotisms. Huntsman, apparently, thinks this a wasteful allocation of American resources, and does not believe the saving of innocent Libyan lives to be “core to [America’s] national security interest” – this despite the believable claim made in February by the former Libyan justice minister that the murder of 189 American citizens on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 was done on Qaddafi’s direct orders. This agoraphobic isolationism naturally does not extend to the American-Israeli ‘special relationship’, Huntsman’s support of which is as staunch as it is unqualified. In 2009 he managed to visit Israel with a delegation of the America-Israel Friendship League – an outfit that last caught my attention when they excoriated President Obama for daring to request that Netanyahu stop expanding illegal Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem – and to be interviewed on camera about his experience of the country without once mentioning the occupation or, indeed, the Palestinians at all. (I ought to say that, dismal as this is, it’s infinitely preferable to the undisguised Christian Zionism of the current front-runner, who says without embarrassment that “I’m a big believer that [Israel] was given to the people of Israel a long time ago, by God, and that’s ordained”.)

Incidentally, of Huntsman’s flaws, I find that I don’t consider his religious faith a cause for especial concern. For while he is ostensibly a Mormon, his religion is plainly not that of Mitt Romney’s. As the aforementioned Vogue report explains: 

People tend to see Mormonism as a binary, you-are-or-you-aren’t question, but Jon Huntsman is something more like a Reform Jew, who honors the spirit rather than the letter of his faith. [...] [His parents] were mostly what Utahans call “Jack Mormons”—people with positive feelings about the Latter-Day Saints church who don’t follow all of its strictures. “We blend a couple of different cultures in this family,” he says.  

You’d never hear a phrase like that from Romney, who has raised his sons as Mormons and sent them on missions. Nor would you see Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben, or Craig Romney in a hotel bar, sipping a glass of wine, as you might see one of Huntsman’s adult children. The difference in attitudes between the two Mormon candidates is encapsulated in the football rivalry between Brigham Young, where Romney went to college, and the University of Utah, where Huntsman went (before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania). BYU is an institution grounded in Mormon theocracy. The University of Utah is a state school that happens to have a lot of LDS students. 

Even if, like me, you find the ‘spirit’ of the racist, misogynistic and all-round lunatic cult of Joseph Smith to be no more attractive than the ‘letter’, you will, I hope, take real comfort from the bacchic indulgences of the junior Huntsmans, as contrasted with teetotalling ‘Tagg’ and the Romney gang (indeed, the old question of which candidate the voters would rather ‘have a beer with’ appears in this case to have only one possible answer). 

Which brings us to the greater question of why so few voters seem to want anything at all to do with Huntsman (approximately 1% of Republicans support his candidacy at the time of writing). Is it his tenure as ambassador to China under the despised Obama administration? His unequivocal acceptance of (I decline to say ‘belief in’) evolution and man-made global warming? Distrust of Mormonism amongst an intractably sectarian Protestant base? Or is it that his eloquence and equanimity fail to excite a crowd more accustomed to crass sloganeering and pulpit-thumping populism? Whatever the answer, it’s to be lamented that the GOP has snubbed the closest thing they had to a sane contender, not only because of the unthinkable implications should Obama lose next year, but for the extra work he might have been compelled to put in for his own party had Huntsman been given the chance to confront him. Instead, we non-Americans will continue to wait in vain alongside our American counterparts for our ‘change’.

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