Being Friends with Obama is not OK

Poor Jon Huntsman. It isn’t bad enough that he is just fresh out of the Obama administration. In today’s hyper-partisan world, he made the very poor decision to be nice to our president. Even worse than that, he was nice to him and Hillary Clinton. Huntsman’s fellow GOP presidential hopefuls have been picking apart two letters the former ambassador to China has written, where he refers to President Obama as a “remarkable leader” and tells Secretary of State Clinton that it “is an honor to work with you.” Though the race is barely off the ground, the Republicans are already taking turns bashing Huntsman for this easy mistake.

In the short term (before Huntsman’s campaign completely falls apart), the White House is happy to contribute to the scrutiny by continually talking about how well he worked with the president and contributed to the administration. They are more than happy to celebrate his time as an ambassador if it means further embarrassment at the expense of right-wing commentators and voters who don’t want their standard bearer to be a man who gushes with praise for his opponent. They want someone who will fight for them and will be a clear contrast to the man currently occupying the White House. Anyone currently in the Obama administration or who has left it will simply be a part of the government that they want to change. Huntsman can easily be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

It is a shame that Jon Huntsman doesn’t stand a chance at winning the GOP presidential nomination. He is one of the only moderate Republicans left, having supported same-sex civil unions and efforts to combat climate change. Of course, these issues alone would be toxic in the primaries, as most GOP candidates have very clear stances against these positions, but many moderate Republicans (many of whom are currently in hiding as independents) support these positions. But even some of the more moderate Republicans can’t help but fall into the popular beat-up-on-the-president bandwagon. He is the face of the left right now (even if the left sometimes disagrees), and the one to beat. Any loyalty to or association with the president is going to be even more scrutinized than if he were just a normal Democratic candidate. Add to that the fact that he was very clear in his admiration for the people from the other side of the aisle that he worked with, and Huntsman has effectively committed political suicide.

Of course, other formerly moderate candidates have transformed before our eyes. Last time around we witnessed Mitt Romney flip-flop John Kerry-style as he left behind his pro-choice past, and recently we have seen him distance himself from the health care reform he passed as governor of Massachusetts. And then there is President Obama’s previous opponent, John McCain, who has transformed from being one of the most admirable mavericks and bipartisan senators to being one of the most conservative.

There is no room in today’s Republican Party for men such as the John McCain of yesterday or Gov. Romney, let alone old giants like Ronald Reagan. To be a member of the 2011 GOP, one must be opposed to the president in every way imaginable, even on a personal level. Jon Huntsman would probably undergo the same transformation, as you must first win over your base before you can earn the right to run for president countrywide.

Granted, being a bit more conservative is an asset during the primary season, but showing respect for our president shouldn’t be something that contradicts conservative principles. After all, the Republicans are the same ones who criticized anyone that did not back the president during the last decade. Disagreeing with the president is as acceptable now as it was then, but this is something else entirely. It is now a detriment to a campaign to have shown respect for the president of the United States. It isn’t surprising considering how mean the Republicans have been these past two years, but the controversy generated by Huntsman’s letters is an alarming signal that too many of us have lost something important: the ability to respect our president as a person and a legitimate leader.

Kerry Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.