Beijing To Myrtle Beach: Jon Huntsman's Long Way Down

A year ago, Jon Huntsman sat down with McKay Coppins to send out the first flares for his presidential campaign. Coppins looks back at the bad decisions, and at Huntsman's surprising diplomatic failures on the campaign trail.

(Reuters / Brian Snyder)

On December 12, 2010, I sat in Jon Huntsman’s sparsely furnished D.C. living room, and listened as the Ambassador to China told me, in careful, diplomatic language, how he believed he could become the next president of the United States.

I was sitting on the lone couch in the room--the family wasn’t yet fully moved into their new Kalorama mansion--and Huntsman had slid a chair over from the kitchen. He was slender, well-coiffed, and wearing a plaid shirt that quite consciously walked the line between Urban Outfitters and L.L. Bean--a persona he would later polish on the campaign trail. He spoke so softly at times that my recorder didn’t pick up his voice, which was fine because most of the time he wasn’t directly answering my questions anyway.

Since Huntsman was still serving in a diplomatic post, his handlers had insisted on various conditions before they agreed to the interview: no discussion of President Obama's job performance; no questions about specific domestic policy issues, and so on. The entire, two-hour interview was to be conducted at 30,000 feet, with permission to descend only if I wanted to wade into wonky foreign policy issues. It was, in essence, a political reporter's worst nightmare.

But about halfway through the interview, as the discussion turned to the Tea Party, something strange happened: Jon Huntsman turned from diplomat to political pundit.

His analysis began innocuously enough, with cautious lip service to the conservative populist movement: "It's a self-correcting mechanism if nothing else, and I think it's ensuring that elected officials hear out the voices of the people."

I pushed back, hoping to extract more candor: “But don’t we run the risk of a given party not being able to nominate a candidate who is willing to work with other...”

Before I could finish the question, though, Huntsman interjected, raising an index finger and forcing a smile, before insisting, “But that’s temporary.”

Huntsman is not an interrupter by nature--but at the moment, he had a point to make.

"Our politics in America go in cycles," he explained, speaking a bit more quickly, his eyes a bit brighter. "And the cycles have to complete one iteration before they give rise to an alternative. And the alternative will likely be a response to people who are perceived to have gone too far."

He paused, fixing his eyes restlessly on a spot on the floor as he searched for an example. Then, it came to him: “Reconstruction! Just look at some of the people who were elected during that time. And then you get Theodore Roosevelt who thought the party had gone astray, which then gives rise to Woodrow Wilson.”

At last, he arrived at the prediction on which he would base his presidential campaign. "We're in the middle of a very interesting cycle that will ultimately give rise to an alternative," he said. "I don't know when that will be, but it is certain to happen."

It's clear now that Huntsman thought that moment had arrived. Never mind the fact that dozens of right-wing populists had just been swept into Congress with a defiant mandate to “take our country back.” He believed the pendulum of Republican politics was swinging toward a high-tone new era, one that would value aisle-crossers, compromisers, modernizers, and principled dealmakers.

And though he couldn't explicitly say he was considering a presidential run, there was no question he was treating our interview as an audition for the job. He spoke eagerly about his talent for trade negotiation and his economic record in Utah. He introduced me to two of his campaign-ready children; a football player at the Naval academy, and an adopted daughter from India. And when I asked him point-blank if he had presidential ambitions, he left the door wide open by declaring, “I think we may have one final run left in our bones.

A couple weeks later, Newsweek would plaster that line across the magazine’s feature well under the headline, “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Huntsman’s plan was audacious, and risky. But he hadn't arrived at his conclusion about Republican politics alone. The fantastical moment in politics he was describing had been aggressively sold to him by a would-be kingmaker who wanted it to be true as badly as the candidate himself did.

John Weaver first met Huntsman during the 2008 campaign, when he persuaded the Utah governor to break ranks with the majority of his constituents and endorse John McCain over Mitt Romney in the Republican primary. Over the course of the campaign, Weaver came to view Huntsman as the party's next great hope; a "conservative problem-solver" who was willing to sacrifice Republican orthodoxies--like global warming denial and opposition to some gay rights --in pursuit of a reformed, centrist, big-tent party. It was a message the charming, sometimes mercurial Weaver had been preaching for years, and in Huntsman he found a new standard-bearer.

When the election ended, Weaver tried to sell Huntsman on the idea of running for president in 2012 as a Republican reformer--the GOP's answer to Obama. Huntsman considered it, and happily played along as presidential buzz mounted, but he couldn't resist the allure of the Beijing post Obama offered to sideline him. When he left for China, everyone--including Weaver--assumed Huntsman's 2012 flirtation was over.

Just two weeks before my interview with Huntsman, I phoned Weaver to ask about the ambassador's political future. "I think you know he's not running this time," he told me flatly. "But he's a young man who has the right tone, and he has a very, very bright future."

When Huntsman then hinted at 2012 ambitions, I returned to Weaver and pressed him for details. He was baffled.

"Can I ask you what he said exactly?" he inquired.

I read him Huntsman's quote. There was a pause, and then he responded: "Well, that's interesting. Don't know if it means anything, but that's very interesting."

Weaver would later tell the New York Times that he read Huntsman’s comment to me as a transcontinental wink at the strategist; a signal that he should start building a campaign-in-waiting. Others weren't quite so sure the would-be candidate was expecting so much organization when he returned home. But Weaver was determined: he immediately set about calling consultants, donors, and admen--and by the time Huntsman resigned his post and returned to the states in April, there was already a team of Weaver loyalists waiting, ready to make him a star.

But ironically, for a campaign that was built around a bridge-building diplomat, Huntsman's operation was bitterly divided almost from the get-go. Within days of Huntsman's return to the states, insiders told me, conflicts began to flare up between the territorial Weaver and some of the candidate's longtime political allies, who felt like they were being unnecessarily boxed out.

"You just had a bunch of consultants who saw [Huntsman] as a meal ticket," complained one family friend from Salt Lake City. "I don't know if he should have hired them, but those who have known him and worked with him should have been consulted. They were the last to know."

The friend added, "People here are still bitching about that."

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