Anyone returning to Washington after the holidays hoping for a calm and quiet reentry must have been sorely disappointed by the first week of the new year: From Capitol Hill to the White House, it was a clamorous, chaotic, and, yes, teary spell that emphatically marked the end of one political phase and the start of another. But this is not a column about the commencement of the Boehner or the Daley era, or the conclusion of the reign of Gibbs. Instead, it’s about a story that broke even earlier in 2011—on January 1, in fact—and then got drowned out by the bang and clatter at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but which certainly merits more attention.
The story in question centers on Jon Huntsman Jr., formerly the Republican governor of Utah and now the U.S. ambassador to China. In an interview with Newsweek, Huntsman—who was widely considered a potential contender for the GOP nomination in 2012 before being named our man in Beijing by Barack Obama—was asked about his political future. “I’m really focused on what we’re doing in our current position,” he replied. “But we won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” Pressed on the possibility of his making that run in the coming election, he pointedly refused to rule it out.
This fleeting flash of Huntsmanian ankle stirred up a swarm of skeptics, who believe the ambassador isn’t serious or is seriously deluded; that his membership on Team Obama and his moderate stances on gay rights (he favors civil unions) and the environment (he endorsed cap-and-trade) mean he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of securing his party’s nomination, let alone taking on the man who is now his boss. No doubt these liabilities are real and significant—but they may not be prohibitive. And if Huntsman were able to overcome them, he just might be the most formidable standard-bearer the Republicans could field against Obama.
The scion and namesake of the billionaire businessman whose firm invented the clamshell container for the Big Mac, Huntsman is a 50-year-old Mormon with seven children who served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations before being elected governor in 2004. Aggressively pro-business, he cut taxes, reorganized services, and earned plaudits for turning Utah (according to the Pew Center on the States’ Government Performance Project) into the best-managed state in the country. In 2008, he won reelection with 78 percent of the vote and, in the wake of Obama’s victory that fall, began arguing that the GOP had to improve its standing with young voters by softening its stances on same-sex issues, climate change, and immigration or risk electoral irrelevance.
Soon enough, Huntsman’s talk caught the attention of David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager (whose official return to the fold begins this week, when he enters the White House as a senior adviser to the president). Asked in early 2009 which Republican he feared most in 2012, Plouffe said that Huntsman is “really out there speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the [Republican] party.”
Next thing you know, Huntsman was on his way to Elba … er, China. Though Huntsman was eminently qualified for the ambassadorship—he spent time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in both Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien—there were those around Obama, including Rahm Emanuel, who saw the assignment as yielding the dual political benefit of signaling bi-partisanship and dispatching a potential rival.
By all accounts, Huntsman has done a terrific job in Beijing—yet this is the source of the first objection to his plausibility as a 2012 runner. As The Atlantic’s James Fallows put it, “[Huntsman] is right in the middle of dealings with America’s most important foreign-policy partner/challenge. So in the GOP primaries, how exactly is he going to out-anti-Obama anyone else in the field, given that he has served Obama (and, yes, the country) so loyally? The retorts from all the other Republicans are almost too easy. ‘If Ambassssadorrr Huntsman is so concerned about the Obama threat to America, then why … ?’ ” (Fallows, indeed, floats the theory that the Newsweek piece was nothing more than a ruse by Huntsman designed to enhance his stature and diplomatic effectiveness in China.)
One should always hesitate to quarrel with Fallows when it comes to China, but he seems not to grasp that a Huntsman candidacy would surely be preceded by a high-profile break with Obama. This would not have to be over China policy. Quite the contrary. The ambassador’s argument would more likely be that, while the administration’s approach to the Middle Kingdom (which he carried out) was solid, Huntsman saw up close how it was undermined by Obama’s profligacy at home. Unquestionably, some in the GOP would never forgive Huntsman for having gone to work for the enemy. But, were his break with the White House skillfully framed, for many others it might make him a kind of hero.
The second set of objections to Huntsman 2012 are more conventional. At a time when all the energy on the Republican side is being generated by the tea party, Huntsman is too cerebral, too patrician, and too globalist to affect even a reasonable facsimile of hot-eyed populism. And between that and his apostasies on matters gay and green, he would be simply unacceptable to too much of the party’s base.
Yet the truth is that Huntsman is hardly some kind of flaming, purple-hued centrist. His positions on abortion and gun control are perfectly in line with the orthodoxies of the hard right, and his tax-cutting zeal would stand him in good stead with ardent economic conservatives. More to the point, the Republican nominating electorate, for all the genuine (veto) power of its base, has in the past been willing to tolerate some degree of deviation in its eventual nominees—from George W. Bush on immigration to John McCain on … well, too many issues to list.
It’s true, of course, that this form of toleration has typically been extended to the candidate who is the party’s clear front-runner, which Huntsman is about as far from being at this point as I am. But therein lies a larger point: Who is? By common consensus among Republican elected officials and senior strategists, no one has yet donned the front-runner’s mantle in the race. And no one is clearly “next in line” to be the nominee—a position that usually matters a great deal within the GOP but that in this cycle could be credibly claimed by both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. The field is not only radically wide open but also strikingly weak.
Were it not for these factors, Huntsman’s lack of a national profile would be a larger problem than it is. But in the run-up to 2012, many Republicans believe that someone with the right mix of qualities, especially someone hailing from the ranks of the party’s current and former governors, could come out of nowhere and emerge as the nominee. To put it bluntly: If someone as unknown as Indiana governor Mitch Daniels can be taken seriously as a 2012 contender—and trust me, among a lot of top Republicans, he is—why not Huntsman?
In a way and by an irony, in fact, the Obama administration may have done the ambassador a huge favor. Far from sidelining him, his China posting has given him the sort of foreign-policy credentials about which every governor who wants to be president fantasizes on a daily basis. The administration has put him on the front lines of what is arguably the most important economic and national-security challenge that the country faces and, in the process, put him in direct touch with the CEOs of some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the country—all of whom make it a point to meet with Huntsman when they are in Beijing, and many of whom are said to have come away deeply impressed. And in a moment in America when anxiety over the long-term threat that China poses to our prosperity is running high, Huntsman is ideally positioned to capitalize on that emotion politically by presenting himself as the man who understands the nature of the challenge and what to do about it best.
On top of all that, Huntsman has two other advantages, neither of which should be underestimated. The first is money: With the help of his father, it’s safe to say he would not be lacking for resources, despite what one presumes would be a fairly late entry into the fray. And the second is strategic: Huntsman has long been close to John Weaver, the guru who guided McCain’s outside-the-box campaign in 2000 and who has been thinking long and hard about the need for a candidate who can fuse the party’s competing factions—and, most important, who looks and sounds like the future.
As anyone who remembers Huntsman’s jarringly clumsy speech officially nominating Sarah Palin at the Republican convention in 2008 will tell you, he is by no means perfect. Making the transition to the big stage would be a real stretch for him. But he is also savvy, serious, smart, and sane. All of which is why David Plouffe was right to be wary of the possibility of a Huntsman run—and why any other Republican considering jumping in should feel exactly the same way.