by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 31, 2011

I am delighted to read that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman may well be a candidate for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination. His decision to resign as Ambassador to China makes the race very intriguing, but most importantly, it serves to afford the Republican party, and the country as a whole, with a serious Presidential candidate prepared to serve in serious times.

Huntsman’s strengths are nicely summarized in the following excerpt:

The handsome heir to a massive fortune in chemicals manufacturing, he would likely be able to put his own money into the race. And by virtue of his current post as well as past foreign policy and trade posts in GOP administrations, the Mandarin-speaking Huntsman is the only campaign-tested Republican considering a run for president who has serious foreign policy credentials.

As for his perceived weaknesses . . .

Yet Huntsman also has a history of taking moderate positions on the environment, immigration and gay rights. He’s publicly dismissed the importance of Republicans on Capitol Hill. And the Mormon faith he shares with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could hamper Huntsman with religious conservatives, much as it did Romney in 2008.

Huntsman supports civil unions, which actually puts him to the right of people like John Bolton and Dick Cheney (and me, for that matter). His attitude regarding Republicans on Capitol Hill may be a controversy-generator, but it seems to be more of an intra-party squabble (hardly a novel event) than a disqualifier for the Presidency. As for Huntsman’s faith, are we really going to demand a religious test for Presidential candidates?

Then there is the glaring problem of his association with a president who’s not only reviled by the GOP base but actually seen by some extreme conservatives as bent on damaging the country.

Huntsman decided to serve the country after one term as Governor (which he completed, and after which, he got a second term). In doing so, he lent his expertise as a China hand–who speaks the language–to the diplomatic corps as Ambassador to China.

What’s wrong with that? Should Eisenhower have been eliminated as a candidate for the GOP nomination in 1952 because he served in the Army, both during the war and postwar, under two Democratic Presidents? Should Reagan never have been elected because he was once a New Deal supporter, enthusiastically admired Roosevelt all of his life, and campaigned for Truman in 1948?

When the President asks you to serve, you owe it to the country–not to the President, to the country–to find every reason possible to say “yes.” Huntsman had skills to offer in the crafting and implementation of policy concerning the Sino-American relationship. In doing so, he decided to forgo TV time, rubber chicken circuit time, gladhanding in Iowa and New Hampshire time, fundraising time, and CPAC and straw polls time to serve the country. It was an act of self-abnegation that we do not see in enough politicians. It’s as close as anyone gets to the ideal of Cincinnatus these days. If we are actually going to say that a politician who puts the national interest over his own electoral interests ought to be disqualified simply because he accepted an ambassadorial appointment from a Democratic President, then there is something seriously wrong with the Presidential selection process.

I mean, are Republicans really willing to overlook the following simply because Jon Huntsman accepted an appointment to Beijing from Barack Obama?

If he does move ahead with a campaign, it seems clear he’d be counting on his record in Utah – which boasts significant accomplishments on tax reform, health care and spending – to overcome doubts about his Republican bona fides. On such fiscal matters, he’s no moderate.

He’ll also have to hope that the current civility craze extends to a significant slice of the Republican primary electorate, which has shown little appetite since 2008 for nominating any candidate viewed as friendly to the Obama administration.

Huntsman would likely appeal to Republicans looking for a solutions-oriented leader who’s more sunny than angry.

As the then-governor put it himself, in a POLITICO interview in 2009: “Whoever emerges as the standard-bearer for the Republican cause in four or eight years will have to first prove that they can be a person who delivers results in the incubator or laboratory of democracy, as opposed to someone engaging in gratuitous rhetoric.”

With a serious team of advisers behind him and significant financial resources at his disposal – plus a made-for-media maverick story of the keyboard-playing, motorcycle-driving, Mormon China-hand trying to move his party away from the fringe – there’s little question that Huntsman would have an opportunity to alter the course of the 2012 campaign.

Obviously, Huntsman would have to fight for attention against the likes of half-term Governor Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney (who lacks the kind of experience that Huntsman would bring to the table), and Mike Huckabee (who does not have nearly the amount of policy grounding that Huntsman has). I suppose that Huntsman will have to rely on the strong likelihood that he would make a better President than any of these three potential candidates in order to carry him to the Republican Presidential nomination. There are less worthy campaign strategies he could adopt, of course.

Republicans may want to consider what the attitude of the Obama Administration is regarding a Huntsman candidacy. Maybe the following is a giant head-fake, but one senses genuine worry amongst the President’s political team:

“I couldn’t be happier with the ambassador’s service, and I’m sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future,” Obama said of Huntsman at a White House press conference earlier this month with Chinese President Hu Jintao and the ambassador himself. “And I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

At an off-the-record dinner Saturday night, at which Huntsman was also present, White House Chief of Staff William Daley kept up the mockery.

“It’s also good to see Jon Huntsman, our ambassador to China,” Daley said, according to a source in the room. “Or as we call him around the White House: the Manchurian Candidate. I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”

Fear jumps right out of that mass of words, doesn’t it? The Obamaphiles should be afraid; here is what they will have to contend with:

. . . Republican strategists backing Huntsman – a former Utah governor now serving as U.S. Ambassador to China – say there is room for a “center-right” presidential candidate as the rest of the early GOP field races to the right.

“Everybody is gaming out 2012 as if it will be 2010, and it’s not,” said one Republican laying the groundwork for a Huntsman bid, should he decide to enter the race.

The adviser stressed that Huntsman is not involved in the details of setting up a potential campaign.

“There is a lot of room on the center-right side of the aisle for Jon,” the adviser said. “But he isn’t going to take a back seat to anyone. He cut taxes and cut spending as governor and had a free-market based health care plan, unlike Obama and Romney. And he is pro-life and pro-Second Amendment.”

The adviser added that Huntsman’s perceived squishiness on other topics – along with working for President Obama, he broke with his party on flashpoint issues like civil unions and climate change while governor – could be an asset in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which allows independents to cast ballots.

Another Republican strategist who has met privately with Huntsman about a possible White House bid said his impressive private sector resume and movie-star good looks called to mind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but the strategist said Huntsman is “more authentic than Romney.”

Huntsman, a fluent Mandarin speaker dating from his experience as a Mormon missionary, would bring considerable foreign policy credentials to a field full of GOP governors, as well as a hefty personal fortune from his family’s chemical business that could make him competitive beyond the early caucus and primary states.

Huntsman doesn’t just have the White House politicos worried. He has Obama supporters in the blogosphere scared too. Behold James Fallows:

When the reports first came up, I laughed them off. But it’s striking now that Huntsman has failed to do the same. What I’d like to see — for the nation’s interest, and (in my view, but what do I know?) for Huntsman’s — is for him clearly to put them to rest. Say that of course he’s a Republican, and of course he’ll support the GOP ticket in 2012. But he’s doing the nation’s business now in Beijing, and doesn’t want to complicate that with all this political gossip. To me as armchair strategist, staying out of the 2012 fray would seem to save him a lot of heartache. Avoiding a primary fight in this bitter season, when he’s fresh off Team Obama; and, if he survived that, avoiding a general election battle when — one assumes — the economic cycle should be improving. If that economic assumption is wrong, everything else changes. But if that were the case and Obama seemed gravely weakened, I am not sure that makes a moderate, rather than a red-meat conservative, the most likely Republican candidate.

Shorter James Fallows: “Having Jon Huntsman do the nation’s business as Ambassador to China is more important than having him serve as President because, um, something.”

I have indicated many a time my respect and admiration for Mitch Daniels. If both he and Huntsman decide to run, I’ll be torn as to whom to support. But if–as I suspect–Daniels decides that he doesn’t want to run, and Huntsman does, then it won’t even be a close question for me. I’ll back the Utahan all the way.

  • Andrew Quinn

    Pejman, I agree 110%. This fellow Chicagoan has Huntsman first and Daniels a hair behind. Hopefully the Huntsman entry scares Daniels off so we don’t have to pick.

  • Skinny Nomore

    Skipping ahead a weeeeeee bit, I’d like Christie as Huntsman’s VP choice. A perfect attack dog. His common appeal coupled with Huntsman’s seriousness might be what Obama was attempting with Biden. Difference is Biden is a doltish embarrassment, Christie is not. And Huntsman has a resume’ while Obama has rhetoric.

    And now back to the real world…

  • Demosthenes

    Some interesting things here for me to digest. I don’t think anyone’s serving their country as an ambassador should disqualify them from higher office, whether or not you approve of the person who appointed them to the job. Membership in LDS is not, and never has been, an issue for me — I didn’t support Mitt Romney last time around, but I can guarantee you it had nothing to do with his religion.

    What I’m most concerned about here are the moderate positions on immigration and environmental issues. Suffice it to say that I can stand a certain amount of moderation in the former, but only in the context of a workable solution to our border security issues — and global-warming apologists leave me fuming. So I’ll have to investigate Huntsman a bit more on these issues.

    Certainly a man to keep an eye on, though. Perhaps both of them.

  • John

    Jon Huntsman, Jr. will never be president of these United States.

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