Bye Bye Beijing, Hello White House?
The current U.S. Ambassador to Beijing, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., reportedly submitted his resignation yesterday, clearing the way for him to throw his hat in the ring as a Republican presidential candidate in 2012. While this move hardly comes as a shock — speculation has been percolating ever since a high-profile article in Newsweek last month, prompting a reporter to raise the question at President Obama’s summit meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao — it does add an interesting twist to both US-China relations and the upcoming US presidential race.
Some skeptical commentators — including my friends James Fallows at The Atlantic and Jim McGregor here in Beijing — have pooh-poohed Huntsman’s chances, arguing that his role as Obama’s emissary to China will pose an insurmountable political problem, both in the Republican primary and the general election. “Huntsman in 2012? Nonsense!” McGregor titled one his blog entries. As a Republican, however, I must say I disagree. I think Huntsman will be a strong candidate, and his cross-partisan experience in China will prove a plus.
It would be one thing if Huntsman had been some kind of political cheerleader for the Obama Administration, or had carried the Obama flag on contentious issues like health care (in this respect, Romney finds himself in a far more awkward position, since Obama’s health care legislation was supposedly based on Romney’s own program in Massachusetts). To the contrary, Huntsman has earned respect on both sides of the aisle — and from the business community — for his steady, professional handling of a complex US-China relationship at a particularly sensitive time. He’s seen as a well-balanced, strong, and effective voice for some of America’s most important interests abroad.
I don’t think you can ever go wrong serving your country, in that sense, whoever the president is. I don’t see any problem with him saying — in a GOP primary debate — “yes, I served in China, because it was too important not to, but here’s how I disagree with this president” on a whole host of critical issues. Combined with his own successful record as Governor of Utah, he could stake out a position as a principled but pragmatic conservative who puts patriotic interests above partisan politics — and I think a lot of Republicans would find that very appealing.
There’s a precedent, after all. In 1964, the Republican Party was unhappily split going into the primaries that year, between a hard-edged, populist true believer who many feared might prove unelectable (Goldwater then, Palin today) and a wealthy northeastern governor distrusted by the base as wishy-washy (Rockefeller then, Romney today). Many Republican voters were eagerly seeking a third choice. A small group of political amateurs put together a grassroots campaign to draft Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a former Republican senator who was serving Democrat Lyndon Johnson as ambassador to South Vietnam: point man for the president’s Asia policy. Lodge won the New Hampshire primary on a write-in ballot, and suddenly emerged as the party’s front-runner. The problem was, Lodge had no campaign organization prepared to follow up on this victory, so he quickly faded. Clearly, there’s a precedent, though, for an ambassador to run against the president he served, and be accepted by the opposition party. If Huntsman goes into it more prepared — and from what I can tell, he’s doing exactly that — the outcome could be very different this time.
(Critics might say, fine, but Johnson won the election that year in a landslide. Yes, but that’s partly because Goldwater did prove unelectable and partly because nobody can tell how strong a sitting president will be –then or now — until closer to the election. The point I’m making is about the plausibility of winning the party nomination).
Alternatively, let’s paint a “worst case” scenario for Huntsman. Many political strategists have observed that whereas Democrats like to “fall in love” with a new guy (Carter, Clinton, and Obama all fit this mode), Republicans like to nominate “the next guy in line.” Ford was Nixon’s VP, Reagan was the guy Ford beat, Bush (Sr.) was the guy Reagan beat, Dole was the guy Bush Sr. beat, McCain was the guy Bush Jr. beat. Now Romney is in the line of succession as the guy McCain beat. Hardly an inspiring way of choosing a candidate, but Republicans apparently like a known quantity. Say this trend holds, and Romney is the foreordained choice in 2012. Then who would you want to be in 2016? The guy Romney beat. I’m not saying that’s what Huntsman’s aiming at (I think he aims to win), but the point is, as long as Huntsman puts in a credible showing, he puts himself in that Republican “line of succession” and positions himself as a strong contender for 2016 — which is smart. One thing’s for certain: you can’t win the prize if you don’t run the race.
I can’t say how warmly Huntsman will be received by Republican primary voters, or how strong Obama will be next year in November — only time will tell. What I can say is, I think Huntsman is a credible and welcome addition to the field.