The Debate

Are Huntsman, Romney Serious?

It’s possible to disagree with “serious and sensible” candidates. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are cases in point.

Writing in the American Conservative, Daniel Larison seems to take issue with my suggestion that Jon Huntsman was one of only two “serious” candidates on foreign policy, asking why exactly I and others have said his policies are “sensible” without going into detail about what we like about them.

With Huntsman having excused himself from the race for the Republican nomination for president, it’s probably not worth doing a point by point analysis of what I do and don’t agree with. And by arguing that he’s serious and sensible I was by no means suggesting that I agree with everything he says. I can view a candidate as serious even if I don’t agree with them on certain issues.

Perhaps one way of judging Huntsman and Romney is looking at what they haven’t been – their “sensibleness” comes from what they haven’t said compared with their opponents. So while Huntsman and Romney both argue for stronger ties with Israel, neither has referred to the Palestinians as an “invented” people or “terrorists” as Newt Gingrich has.

And while Huntsman bucked the trend among most of his opponents by calling for defense cuts (admittedly through the slightly woolly concept of “eliminating waste”), his tone was less alarming than that of Ron Paul, who has called for military spending to be slashed. Paul has tried to draw a distinction between “military” and “defense” spending, but his fortress America, pull up the drawbridge approach looks a little naïve – the United States has a great many interests to protect overseas that have a direct impact on how average Americans live. Take the Strait of Hormuz, as just one example – would Iran’s threats to close it have sounded so empty without the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the region?

Another point, as I’ve mentioned before, is a candidate’s foreign policy advice. Obviously a solid candidate should understand some of the broader themes of international affairs. But they can’t be expected to formulate all the specifics on their own – they have an informed vision but rely on the advisers they surround themselves to fill in the details. And Romney’s foreign policy team has broadly been seen as a serious and knowledgeable crowd.

But there’s one more specific reason why I believe Huntsman was sensible, and that was on the issue of global warming. He created a stir back in August by acknowledging global warming and saying he trusted scientists on global warming. Now to most but the Republican faithful, this isn’t a particularly controversial comment. But it was an extraordinarily brave thing to say during the campaign for the support of conservatives in the Republican primary, and he surely deserved credit for sticking to this very “sensible” position despite the political fallout. Instead, though, we are left with candidates like Rick Santorum, who has referred to global warming as “junk science,” a position that is likely instructive of his instincts toward policy making more generally. (Romney, incidentally, hasn’t exactly been stellar on this issue, but his actual record when in office was more solid than his rhetoric on the campaign trail has been, so there’s hope, at least.)

There’s plenty I disagree with both Romney and Huntsman on in terms of foreign policy. But when I look at who was in the race – and who is still left as South Carolinians vote today – I stand by my argument that the race lost a serious and sensible candidate in Huntsman.