Conservatives Are Doomed, This Time in...Utah?

Kirk Johnson sees the death of conservatism in the repeal of a Utah liquor law and celebrates the state's moderate GOP governor Jon Huntsman Jr.

Uncovering secret moderation among Western conservative yokels in the age of Obama is becoming a specialty of Western-based reporter Kirk Johnson. On Inauguration Day, Johnson wrote in condescending fashion about the "orderly phalanx marching behind Mr. McCain" in Oklahoma, which had the bad taste to give McCain his largest margin of victory of any state. Still, there was hope even for the Okies, as "that staunchly Republican, conservative Oklahoma is harder to find now."

This Saturday, he profiled Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in the negatively headlined "G.O.P. Governor Challenges Utah's Conservative Verities." The text box reads: "The governor breaks with conservative orthodoxy and is still popular." (Johnson was also concerned about "socially conservative orthodoxy" the day after Election Day 2008, claiming it hurt Republicans in Colorado.)

Johnson's first piece of evidence? The state's one-of-a-kind alcohol laws, which until last week required patrons to purchase a membership in the bar's "private club" before they could have a drink.

Among Utah Republicans, who hold every statewide elected office and more than two-thirds of the State Legislature, Hamlet-like quests for purpose and direction are hardly the norm.

But the norms are dead for Republicans here, something that was in plain view this week as lawmakers overhauled the state's formerly untouchable liquor law at the urging of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

The debate was about scrapping the state's one-of-a-kind system of regulating bars and restaurants in a bid to boost the economy. But bound up in it was a profound, ongoing dialog, led by Mr. Huntsman, about what the Republican Party should be about and who should lead it.

The antiquated alcohol laws of one uniquely religious, sparsely populated stateis an awfully slender thread from which to spin a philosophical discussion of theRepublican Party'sidentity, isn't it?

Besides, the Republican-dominated Utah legislature passed the bill. Liquor law puritanism is not an exclusively conservative trait: One of the most liberal states, New York, had a law strictly limiting interstate wine sales until the Supreme Court overturned the law in 2006.

The undercurrent of the story, as channeled through Huntsman: The GOP must moderate or perish.

The soul-searching has also meant a star search for national party leaders. Some Republicans say that conservative politicians like Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the party's vice-presidential nominee in November, will show the way forward, while others say the electoral map - and the formula for future Republican victories - was rewritten by President Obama's election, and that a kind of casting call is now under way for new voices. Mr. Huntsman is firmly in the camp that says Republicans must turn the page....Mr. Huntsman's moderate views often put him out of step in his first term - and sometimes made him ineffective as well - with the deeply conservative Republican majorities in the State House and Senate. But in the last six months, Mr. Huntsman has honed those differences to rapier sharpness as conservatives linked to the policies of former President George W. Bush have gone on the defensive....But there are hints that Mr. Huntsman's message of moderation, especially given his popularity in the state, is resonating beyond the Legislature and drawing support among the broader population.

Johnson bolstered that last assertion in strained fashion as well, by making an assumption that conservatives would be outraged over Huntsman's support of civil unions for gays. When Utahans failed to be outraged, Johnston conveniently chalked that up as yet another victory for Republican moderation.

But the backlash never developed. Indeed, after his announcement, a poll by Deseret News/KSL-TV found that two-thirds of respondents said their opinion of the governor had not changed or had become more positive because of his position on civil unions. Over all, the governor's approval rating had barely budged, with 80 percent of residents saying they thought he was doing a good job.

Numbers like that could bolster Mr. Huntsman's position in the next legislative fight with his party's most conservative elements.