Jon Huntsman has been mired in the low single digits since he launched his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination over the summer, a joke among conservative activists and the media. He seemed to embrace the role, associating himself with the ‘Occupy’ movement on the left, coming out with the most progressive and transformational financial reform proposals of either party, and dismissing Republican madness on science and climate change.
But now that he’s picking up some steam in New Hampshire and earning plaudits from the Republican chattering class as perhaps the most conservative nominee that can be hoped for, the former Utah governor is lurching right, eager to assuage fears and shore up his right flank in the case that he finds himself halfway-viable come January.
Whereas in August, Huntsman famously tweeted, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,” at the Heritage Foundation “Bloggers Briefing” Tuesday, he hedged, saying he was unsure about it “because there are questions about the validity of the science…the onus is on the scientific community to help clarify the situation.”
This reads more like Mitt Romney and even Newt Gingrich’s approach, which is not to deny the science outright so much as to irresponsibly suggest there is no consensus on the issue, even when hundreds of organizations and governments agree it is beyond dispute that climate change is man-made and a serious threat.
We can get a sense of Huntsman grasping at the air, navigating an ideological road seldom traveled, trying to find an identity that fits in a Republican Party unlike the one of his youth or even young adulthood. He is conservative, certainly, but open to thinking about politics in ways most conservatives are not. He’ll move to the right if it means winning his party’s nomination, but probably not so far as to compromise his identity.
Should he break out in the Granite State and make a serious play in the primaries thereafter, it will mean conservative activists have less sway over the party rank-and-file than we now imagine — and also that the party is less monolithic than we might like to believe.