Dearest liberal observers of Republican debates, please do not fall too deeply in love with Jon Huntsman simply because he gives the appearance of being reasonable. As you will see from this clip, he's as in the tank as the rest of them when it comes to the social safety net, and there's not much reason to think he wouldn't be just as radical as a Rick Santorum or yes, Mitt Romney, when it comes to policy decisions.
I submit as evidence this spectacular, head-spinning, whiplash inducing moment in the Sunday morning NBC-Facebook debate in New Hampshire. Mr. Huntsman is understandably angry about Mitt Romney's gratuitous and snarky slam with regard to Mr. Huntsman's service as Ambassador to China under the Obama administration in the debate on Saturday night. To refresh memories, here's the specific slam from Romney to Huntsman during the ABC/Yahoo debate:
ROMNEY: I’m sorry, Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.
Ah, red meat for the base, right? Everyone loves a slam on the President, and if it smacks down a rival on your side of the aisle, so much the better. Well, except Huntsman sort of turned it back on Mittens in Sunday's debate, by reminding Mr. Romney that true patriots put their country ahead of their political affiliations:
JON HUNTSMAN: Let me say-- let me say, first of all, with respect to Governor Romney, you know, there are a lot of people who are tuning in this morning. And I'm sure they're terribly confused after watching all of this political spin up here. I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first.
And I just want to remind the people here in New Hampshire and throughout the United States that I think-- he criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They're not asking who-- what political affiliation the president is. I wanna be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country. I will always put my country first. And I think that's important to them.
Nice strong comeback from Mr. Huntsman, but not a lot of audience reaction to that one, and of course, Mitt Romney was able to respond with his shallow partisan banter:
MITT ROMNEY: I-- I think we serve our country first by standing for people who believe in conservative principles and doing everything in our power to promote an agenda that does not include President Obama's agenda. I think the decision to go and work for President Obama is one which you took. I don't-- don't disrespect your decision to do that. I just think it's-- most likely that the person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China.
Mitt leans back at the end of that answer with a bit of a smug look on his face, as if to signal that he has dispatched Mr. Huntsman's annoying presence with the mere swat of the tongue. The audience, however, remained silent. I wonder...would Mr. Huntsman have been criticized so roundly if he had served as a Navy admiral under President Obama? To his credit, Jon Huntsman didn't leave it there, and his retort was perfect. It's ad-ready, even.
JON HUNTSMAN: This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that. The American people are tired of the partisan division. They have had enough. There is no trust left among the American people in the institutions of power and among the American people and our elected officials.
And when Jon Huntsman said that, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause and cheers. Were those people Huntsman supporters? I don't know. What I do know is that there's no question that people are incredibly frustrated with Congress and Republicans in Congress in particular, so I would say that applause probably came from several different areas of that audience, not just Huntsman supporters.
If only Jon Huntsman had left well enough alone. But no, there he was, poised to grab a nice rhetorical victory at Mitt Romney's expense, when David Gregory forced him back to what I consider to be a really poorly-phrased question. Here it is:
DAVID GREGORY: --superficial. Let's talk substance. So Governor Huntsman, name three areas where Americans will feel real pain in order to balance the budget?
Before I get to Huntsman's response, I'd just like to say that this kind of question is offensive, particularly when the national conversation has clearly shifted away from austerity and toward recovery, thanks to the OWS movement. Never let it be said that David Gregory misses an opportunity to play into conservatives' narratives, even when they're dead as doornails. And by asking this question, the hapless David Gregory laid the foundation for Jon Huntsman to step on his own neck. His answer:
JON HUNTSMAN: Well, I would have to say that I agree with the Ryan plan. I think I'm the only one standing up here who has embraced the Ryan plan. It's a very aggressive approach to taking about 6.2-- $6.2 trillion out of the budget over 10 years. And it looks at everything. And what I like about it is it says there will be no sacred cows.
JON HUNTSMAN: Medicare won't be a sacred cow. Department of Defense won't be a sacred cow. As president of the United States I'm gonna stand up and I'm gonna say, "We are where we are. 24% spending-- as a percentage of GDP. We've gotta move to 19%--
DAVID GREGORY: Three programs that will make Americans feel pain, sir?
Just like that, Mr. Huntsman snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Ryan plan is hated by everyone but the most extreme edges of the Republican party. And not only for the Medicare proposals, but also for the privatization plan for Social Security, the deep and austere cuts to the Federal government, and other extreme and unnecessary cuts, while actually increasing the Defense budget. The whole plan is a disaster when put in front of the American people.
Ron Wyden's absurd attempt to make the Ryan plan some kind of bizarre bipartisan issue almost robbed Democrats of the advantage on this in 2012. But thanks to Jon Huntsman and also Mitt Romney, Republicans now have sole ownership of it once again, all in the name of causing pain to the American people.
Side note to David Gregory: Please consider suppressing your sadistic nature. It's not pretty in public.