Jon Huntsman, Jr. walked into the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School two weeks ago with the confidant stride of a former presidential candidate. He had been invited to make a short speech and field questions from students, the kind of intimate event which would have been prohibitively low-profile just a few months ago.
“I’m a little perplexed,” Huntsman told a crowd of aspiring politicos. “I’m not sure why you want to hear from a failed candidate?”
Huntsman wore a well-cut navy suit, a white French-cuffed shirt, and a slender purple tie, his cuffs linked by two small red stones bordered with Chinese characters. If international statesmanship had a cover boy, it would certainly be Huntsman.
But on this occasion, the former State Department journeyman seemed more content being a has-been than the leading man. Occasionally savoring an expletive off-limits on the campaign trail, Huntsman offered up “random musings, if you will” of lessons learned in his various offices and campaigns through his over 25 years in politics.
On China’s political future: “How would you like to have six hundred million redundant farmers on your hands?”
On America’s aging infrastructure: “In politics, to utter the word ‘infrastructure’ will get you in trouble in some groups.”
On the presidential candidates: “The barriers to enter this game are pretty darn low. We’re a country of 315 million people...and this is the best we can do?”
Jokes aside, most of the hour-long talk was spent lamenting the lack of leadership in the Republican Party and throughout the capital. Before long, Huntsman removes his jacket and leans in toward the crowd.
“The party is not in a good place right now,” he said, pointing to candidates afraid to take bold stances and others afraid just to enter the race as evidence. Voters are getting fed up, he explained, and sooner or later they are going to do something about it.
It was not the first time Huntsman has been outspoken in his criticism of political leadership since calling it quits on his own campaign in January. He appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in February, telling host Joe Scarborough the GOP would probably be best served by a third-party movement. The statement rippled through the media and died out. (It’s hard for former candidates to make the news during primary season.) But Huntsman’s message is not likely to go away.
Case in point: likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney. After a half-decade long presidential campaign, the former Massachusetts governor finally appears to have secured himself a spot in the country’s biggest political showdown, but the stadium looks to be empty.
“I think Romney will show leadership on the economic deficit,” Huntsman said. “On the trust deficit, I don’t see a whole lot of leadership.”
Outside of the party bosses, Republicans around the country just don’t seem to care for Romney. That there are party die-hards more excited about the prospect of Jeb 2016 than Willard 2012 says a lot. Huntsman says it’s all about leadership. Voters don’t believe in Romney. Years as a campaigner have worn away his novelty and more importantly the clarity of his message.
“The people, they want to be told where you want to go,” Huntsman said. “They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt so long as we tell them upfront what we want to do...where we want to go.”
Things seem to be so bad in Huntsman’s view, that nothing short of a popular uprising will set the leadership straight. The leaders need to be led.
“My source of hope is that the American people, while sometimes late to the game, will demand change eventually,” Huntsman said.
The speech at Harvard was a last-minute affair tucked into a day jam-packed with appearances and private events. Despite the strong-handling of staff and his wife Mary Kaye’s bored looks, the politician couldn’t help shaking a few hands and posing for pictures. Even as he walked to the Harvard Square Hotel, Huntsman stopped periodically in an open plaza to chat with students trailing him.
“So, what do you study?”
Talking with Scarborough, Huntsman made it clear he was not the man for the job. He says he would be crazy to run for president again. Still, the emphasis with which he dismissed questions of a potential run in 2016 seemed almost too convincing, drawing knowing smiles from much of the Harvard crowd. Flanked by Mary Kaye, his campaign-trail shadow, post-candidate Huntsman affects a very contradictory air—an air that may be best described as, well, political.
“I never thought I’d run for public office. I used to make fun of people who ran for public office,” Huntsman joked with the crowd, his humor walking a fine line.
Huntsman may not be a candidate, but he’s not exactly off the trail.