Through the simple act of resigning as the United States Ambassador to China, John Huntsman, Jr., has injected considerable excitement into the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes. The sheer attention the mere possibility of the businessman-turned governor-turned diplomat is attracting says much about the current state of the race and even more about what the party’s primary voters may be seeking in their next presidential nominee.
The first thing a possible Huntsman candidacy would bring to the 2012 campaign is a “new face.” Republicans often say that they want such a thing, but seldom get around to nominating it. This is, after all, the party that put a man named “Nixon,” on five of its national tickets, another named “Dole” on two, and two named “Bush” on six. Of the dozen or so Republicans likely to pursue the nomination, several sought the presidency or the vice presidency before, others were considered as possibilities, while the rest are all known to party circles for their work in past administrations, party affairs, and Congress.
Also working in Huntsman’s favor is that his China sojourn necessitated that he absent himself from the controversies that arose during the first half of Obama’s term. China can be said to have done for Huntsman what California did for Reagan. Whatever else the Gipper’s detractors may have said about him, none could establish a link between him and the myriad of Nixon controversies and scandals encompassed in the term, “Watergate.” [See photos of Reagan's life.]
If it is true, as some have suggested, that in selecting presidents, voters gravitate to candidates who appear the most different from the incumbent president (think Wilson and Harding, Eisenhower and Kennedy, Carter and Reagan, G.W. Bush and Obama), Huntsman possesses something Obama lacked: experience. He has lots of it in both domestic and foreign affairs.
Huntsman was twice elected governor of Utah by healthy margins. He carried 57 percent of the vote in 2004 and 77 percent four years later. In his more than four years in office, he cut taxes significantly; replacing what had been a top tax rate of 7 percent with a flat tax of 5 percent and reducing the sales tax on unprepared food from 4.75 percent to 1.25 percent. He had tried to exempt food from the tax entirely. These achievements, plus Huntsman’s aggressive courtship and advocacy of business should please fiscal conservatives. Huntsman’s success at government reorganization (a goal President Obama set for his own administration) and educational reforms earned him a reputation for competence. During his time as governor, the Pew Center on the States named Utah the best managed state.
Huntsman’s experience in international economics and foreign affairs preceded his service as ambassador to China by decades. After serving as a staff assistant in the Reagan White House, Huntsman served as deputy assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush and as George W. Bush's deputy trade representative. Then there were the years he spent managing multiple family-run business and charitable enterprises. As president, Huntsman would hit the ground running well versed on international finance and, in particular, with the workings of the United State’s leading trading partner, principal creditor, and strategic competitor.
In the staging of his possible entry into national politics, Huntsman has also shown himself to be an astute political marketer. While the other candidates spend the winter slogging through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, building state organizations, meeting party leaders, and showing their wares at conferences like CPAC, Huntsman, tending to his ambassadorial duties, will let his politically seasoned and particularly astute agents make his case for him. His capacity to remain in the news, while making no overt political moves, will add an element of suspense to the race. The longer Huntsman stays out, the longer he will be able to dominate it, while escaping the barbs others attract.
A man of considerable personal means (think Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes, but not Rockefeller), Huntsman can take the plunge later than most, and become instantly competitive in the early caucuses and primaries. He and his supporters might even be happy to miss those jam-packed fundraisers with bad food and poor ventilation that consume so much of the candidate and his staff. [Read: Reagan and Kennedy as Role Models for Obama.]
Among his early public appearances will be a commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. If he follows in the tradition of George Marshall (think “Marshall Plan”) or Winston Churchill (think “iron curtain”), Huntsman can use the occasion (a commitment of long-standing) to deliver a major policy address. If it goes well, the media might bill it as the “real Republican response” to Obama’s State of the Union Address.
A delayed entry will also allow Huntsman time to consider how he will address the concerns of elements within his party that either do not know him well or look upon him with suspicion. Social and religious conservatives, satisfied with his opposition to abortion and extended gun control, will press him to see whether his support of civil unions extends to same sex marriage. (Huntsman has, in the past, responded in the negative.) Tea Partyers, who maintain that spending, and not the social issues, is their principal concern, will want to know what Huntsman had in mind when he embraced a “regional ‘cap and trade’ system. They will not be pleased that he endorsed Obama’s 2009 “stimulus package.” [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
National security conservatives and human rights activists will want to know precisely what kind of “China hand” Huntsman would make as president. Would a President Huntsman actively promote human rights and make clear to the Chinese that the United States considers this issue as important to American interests as it does trade and other economic concerns? Or would he award a greater weight to demands his fellow CEOs, heavily invested in China and eager not to curry Beijing’s favor, make on U.S. policymakers to play down human rights concerns and complaints about uncompetitive labor practices in pursuit of business?
National security conservatives and human rights activists can be expected to ask Huntsman whether he stands by a statement he made to the Salt Lake Tribune, last September, that the U.S. “trampled on a couple of China’s core interests” when it sold $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan and when President Obama met with the Dalai Lama. Were these Huntsman’s views or those of the of Obama administration? Had the United States no “interests” of its own to advance through these actions? If so, how did comments like these advance them diplomatically?
National security conservatives, in particular, will want to know how Huntsman, as president, will respond to the increased bellicosity China has been showing its neighbors, its plans to grow its submarine fleet, its work to develop advanced fighter aircraft and advanced cruise missiles designed to target American aircraft carriers. Above all, many people, not all of them Republicans, are most certain to ask what future Huntsman envisions for the United States in a region critically important to its economic and national security interests and over which China seeks to assert dominance. [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]
Huntsman will not have to field any of these questions until, at least May, when his resignation officially takes effect. For now his would-be Republican opponents are going easy on him. (One presumes all have put their research operations to work.) Expressions of unease about a possible Huntsman run to date have come almost exclusively from Democrats.
Bill Daley, the president’s new chief of staff, following the lead of the press, has taken to referring to the Huntsman as the “Manchurian candidate.” He would do well to avoid such phrases. The more the president’s team ridicules Obama’s pick for the Beijing post, the more they will be questioned as to why Obama named Huntsman in the first place. The conventional wisdom among the chattering class at the time was that Obama did so to waylay a potential threat to his re-election. Even if true, such cynicism hardly bodes well for an administration that sought to make “hope” its mantra.
In a rare display of humility, Daley’s boss suggested that Huntsman’s association with the current administration would ricochet against the soon-to-be former ambassador. “I’m sure that him having worked so well for me will be a great asset in any Republican primary,” Obama said. For the second time in four years, Obama may have underestimated a man presidential adviser David Plouffe once admitted feeling a “wee bit queasy” about.