Bruni: Huntsman embraces the pretzel
At debates his opponents sported ties with colors from the flag: blue or, better yet, blistering Republican red.
He wore pink.
Onstage and on the stump, they bashed Europe and threatened a trade war with China.
He burst spontaneously into Mandarin.
For a while Jon Huntsman was the brother from another Republican planet, one where climate change is likely and evolution inarguable. Where it isn't girlie Limbaugh bait to sit, as he did, for a Vogue profile illustrated with Annie Leibovitz photographs. Where you don't have to malign the Democratic president as the devil incarnate pitchfork, cloven hooves and all.
How alien and refreshing he was.
And how depressingly he snapped back into line Monday, exiting the presidential race by surrendering to the earth's gravity and reverting to its familiar partisan cant.
In his withdrawal speech in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he declared that the need to get rid of President Barack Obama made this "the most important election of our lifetime." Not so long ago he worked for and praised that selfsame president.
He said that the remaining candidate "best equipped to defeat Barack Obama" was Mitt Romney and endorsed him. Just last week, Romney was so "detached from the problems that Americans are facing," according to Huntsman, that he was "completely unelectable."
He remarked on the country's need for "bold and principled leadership." Note the "principled" part. And remember, as Huntsman tries to make you forget, that videos on his website and his YouTube channel variously labeled Romney a "pretzel candidate," an expert at the "backflip" and, most florid of all, "a perfectly lubricated weather vane." That's one slippery inconstancy metaphor.
On Monday those videos were suddenly gone, as Michael D. Shear noted on The New York Times' political blog. And Huntsman's defeat was complete, not merely because he lost but because conventional politics with all its compromises, hypocrisy and obeisance won.
Of course former rivals morph into allies all the time. John McCain now makes goo-goo eyes at Romney. Hillary Clinton endures permanent jet lag for Obama.
But Huntsman's endorsement of Romney came much more quickly than it had to and in spite of a distaste for each other that's particularly intense.
Although both grew up wildly privileged, Romney sees Huntsman as someone who leaned too hard on his father, never forging his own private-sector success. And Huntsman's endorsement of McCain over him during the last Republican primary felt like a deliberate slap.
Huntsman by many accounts seethed when Romney snagged, and benefited mightily from, a job that he was passed over for: the stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He squirmed as Romney tacked this way and that in politics. In Huntsman's eyes he's a rudderless operator.
And in recent weeks Huntsman finally said as much, though he had begun his campaign with a pledge to take the high road and though, on Monday, he implored the remaining Republican candidates to cease "an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people."
With Romney, Huntsman had succumbed to the unworthy, getting negative and personal and excising all context in order to slam the front-runner for saying, "I like being able to fire people." The high road dipped into the mud.
From the start, he couldn't find any traction. He arrived late to a patch of moderate turf already cordoned off by another Mormon scion with very good hair, a very blond wife and a very large brood of absurdly attractive children. To watch footage and see photographs of the Huntsman girls and then the Romney boys was to enter some cyber-political version of "The Brady Bunch." The two clans together tipped into wholesomeness overload.
Huntsman initially ran to Romney's left, though he possessed the more consistently conservative record. Even when he pivoted and embraced that, he couldn't summon the gloom and invective that the anyone-but-Mitt crowd craved. He didn't have the spleen for it.
A sort of cool, bland reason oozed from him, and until the last two weeks a certain political expediency seemed beyond him. Then again his personality and past never got worked over by the Romney operation the way, say, Rick Perry's and Newt Gingrich's did. He who never surges never need be squashed.
Huntsman is unlikely to land on the 2012 ticket. Does he have 2016 in mind?
By getting out before a miserable showing in the South Carolina primary and the exodus of an additional candidate or two, he guaranteed himself more news coverage and a greater air of importance than he might have received afterward.
And by hopping without pause on the Romney bandwagon, he hastened his journey back from party outlier to dutiful soldier. Reflecting Monday on his campaign experience, he said, "I have seen the very best of America." His voice wasn't persuasive.
His mood matched his tie. Both were blue.
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