Of course politicians have a bad reputation – right up there with used car salesmen, personal injury attorneys, hedge fund managers, real estate agents and anyone who actually chooses to live in Hollywood. But sometimes it’s a real kick to see a master politician at work – not a hack, but someone who outsmarts the hacks and poseurs, cutting them out of the power equation before they realize what just happened.
That happened on a Saturday morning in May:
U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday named the Republican governor of Utah to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, a pivotal post in relations between the United States and a major emerging economic power.
Jon Huntsman Jr., 49, a Mandarin-speaking former U.S. trade official with deep personal and family business ties to China, takes on a delicate diplomatic role with a vital trading partner and one of the biggest sources of financing for the growing pile of U.S. government debt.
“This ambassadorship is as important as any in the world because the United States will best be able to deal effectively with the global challenges of the 21st century by working in concert with China,” Obama said at a White House ceremony with Huntsman at his side.
Huntsman is the son of billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman, and his family founded chemical company Huntsman Corp, which has operations in China, including a factory in Shanghai. One of Huntsman’s seven children, daughter Gracie Mei, was adopted from China.
Huntsman quoted a Chinese aphorism as he accepted the nomination on Saturday, which he translated as, “Together we work; together we progress.”
Well, that seems nice, and a good choice, but this guy was not just any Republican – Huntsman was one of many of John McCain’s national campaign co-chairmen. And many thought he would run 2012, and save the Republican Party from the crazies. That’s not going to happen now.
The Reuters item gives the logic of the choice – in a 2006 speech in Shanghai, Huntsman was talking up bilateral cooperation – peace and economic prosperity on both sides and all that – but also riffed on how environmental damage in Asia hurt wildlife in his home state of Utah. But generally everyone agrees Huntsman is “a problem-solver rather than a dogmatist” – and the Obama folks say he’s a “‘no drama Obama’ type” – and that it doesn’t hurt that he’s fluent in the language and culture in question, and has been working on the critical issues affecting the region for decades. He was made for the job. Who’s going to argue?
It’s all pretty basic:
Huntsman served as deputy U.S. trade representative in the Bush administration from 2001-2004, and was U.S. ambassador to Singapore from 1992 to 1994 when Bush’s father was president.
China is among the largest buyers of U.S. government debt, with $767.9 billion as of March, according to Treasury Department data released on Friday. Washington is keen to maintain a strong relationship – particularly now as the $787 billion stimulus package and $700 billion financial bailout fund have strained public finances.
Any ambassador post requires Senate confirmation – this should be a slam dunk.
But there’s more to it, and Mathew Yglesias says the whole thing is rather unexpected:
One’s thoughts, naturally, flow initially to the domestic politics as Huntsman was one of a relatively small number of prominent Republicans to have avoided a turn to the far-right over the past twelve months and seemed like the guy many progressives thought could best put a politically credible mainstream face on conservatism.
Yep – he was a threat. He could grab votes in the middle, lots of them, and now he’s no longer a threat. But he is a realist, as far as Yglesias can tell:
In these terms, though, I think the most interesting calculation isn’t Obama’s but Huntsman’s. You’ve got to figure that Huntsman’s decided that he couldn’t possibly win a presidential primary, so he’ll take the gig.
Is everyone seeing the Republican Party the same way? It’s rapidly becoming the party of Limbaugh, Cheney and Palin – shrinking to the core twenty-one percent of the population who are the true believers. No one else need apply. When Rush Limbaugh says there’s no room in the party for Colin Powell, and Cheney says he’d rather have Rush in the party than that fool Powell – implying Rush always knew more about military matters and geopolitics than Powell would ever know – maybe Huntsman was right to walk away.
James Richardson explains the dynamics:
Reelected in 2008 by a record margin as a moderate Republican in an exceedingly conservative state, party elites and strategists were quick to point to the rising star as a potential challenger to the president. But given today’s interesting political calculus, the prospect of Huntsman now staging a challenge to Obama is exceptionally low.
Having carved out a reputation as a would-be-modernizer and pragmatic conservative on divisive social issues, Huntsman was right to test the waters. It seems he waded a little too deep for Obama’s comfort, however.
No less than the chief architect of Obama’s campaign David Plouffe has expressed concern over Huntsman’s budding portfolio. While he admits no potential candidate makes him “shake in his shoes,” he concedes the potential of a Huntsman bid leaves him a “wee bit queasy.”
Now that’s taken care of, and not a moment too soon:
By all accounts, Huntsman stood a good chance at securing the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, if only for the fact that he is the conservative antithesis of Obama: He’s a moderate, young, and attractive politician. Those are the grounds on which Obama won, and those are the grounds on which they fear he’ll lose it in 2012.
By co-opting Huntsman, Obama will have successfully pacified the lone Republican 2012 challenger, thereby ensuring a stable route to victory. Then, of course, is the knowledge that he’ll likely receive Republican praise for his gesture of bipartisanship, however politically shrewd it may be.
Andrew Sullivan however is thinking of Florida, of Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother – not Mycroft from the stories, but George Bush’s brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida. And he’s thinking of the current governor, Charlie Crist, who is about to run for the senate. The core of the Republican Party calls Crist a traitor – he shook hands with Obama, on stage, in front of cameras, and will take the stimulus money to keep his state afloat. There’s a move afoot to deny him any party funds, to teach him a lesson in loyalty. Sullivan, who fancies himself a traditional conservative, is not happy with this:
Huntsman is the one of very few – Jeb and Crist are the others, in my view – who could rescue the GOP from generational oblivion. He’s a conservative from Utah, but understands how ugly, bitter and extremist the Republicans have become. A pro-civil union Mormon who gets the problem of climate change, Huntsman was the un-Cheney. And Obama just snagged him.
Don’t under-estimate Obama’s political cunning, guys.
But for those of us with some small hope of restoring decency and moderation to the right, this is a major blow. What Obama is doing is bringing all the sane conservatives – from Crist to Huntsman to Gates – into his orbit.
And Cheney gets to be the face of the GOP future.
Specter is a hack who switched parties for his own cynical reasons – but for a guy like Huntsman in a safe state with a bright political future to basically say, “To hell with the GOP. I’ll spend a few years carrying water for a Democratic President” … well, it just speaks volumes.
Not only does it suggest that the GOP is alienating non-dogmatic conservative politicians, but it suggests that Huntsman basically considers the Republican Party, in the near-term, a lost cause. This is the kind of guy who could move Republicans to a more sensible middle ground and he doesn’t seem to have any interest at all. It’s the political equivalent (sort of) of Bill Clinton joining the Bush Administration in 1989.
Benen agrees, saying that Huntsman “has clearly been eyeing the 2012 Republican presidential race” – that’s why he brought on John Weaver, the architect of McCain’s Straight Talk Express. Weaver can go home now. As for Huntsman, Benen says “rising stars” in Republican politics just don’t do this very often.
But Benen reminds us of this from just a few weeks before this announcement:
Huntsman had scheduled several campaign-style stops in Michigan, apparently to help lay the groundwork for future support. Republican leaders in one key Michigan county abruptly withdrew Huntsman’s invitation, however, when local officials learned that the Utah governor had the nerve to support civil unions for gay couples.
“The voters want and expect us to stand on principle and return to our roots,” the local chairwoman of the GOP said. “Unfortunately, by holding an event with Gov. Huntsman, we would be doing the exact opposite.”
It was a ridiculous move, of course, but it also sent a signal to Huntsman about the level of maturity in his party – or in this case, the lack thereof. It’s certainly possible the response from this county and other GOP activists made clear to Huntsman that it’s not worth even trying to take the lead in the party, at least not in the near future.
Benen suggests that Huntsman is probably waiting to see if the Republicans will have grown up by 2016 – however unlikely that might seem.
But be that as it may, it’s cool to see a master politician at work, and that is what Al Giordano sees:
That they announced this shortly after Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele gaffed his way into another controversy, this time regarding the evident anti-Mormon bigotry in Evangelical Christian circles, is nothing less than political poetry. Steele said, on Bill Bennett’s radio show, “Remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism…”
The appointment of Huntsman is thus, politically, a slam dunk. When GOP primary voters inevitably reject Romney once again in the 2012 primaries and caucuses outside of the Mountain West, the resentment – already boiling after last year’s adventures in presidential politics – among rank-and-file Mormons that the party to whom they’ve given so much still doesn’t really want them in the Master’s house rather than the servant’s quarters, will sting. Meanwhile, another of their prominent citizens will likely still be Obama’s man in Beijing, proof that somebody in American politics isn’t dissing the LDS and its members. And in key swing states like Nevada and Colorado, LDS members are legion.
Some said Obama was crazy, back in 2007 and 2008, to reach out to what conventional wisdom thought was an impenetrable GOP base… Crazy, like a fox.
And Karl Rove was supposed to be the genius.
Of course sometimes it’s a matter of what you have to work with. Gary Becker sees the right going nowhere:
I believe that the best way to restore the consistency and attractiveness of the conservative movement is for modern conservatism to return to its roots of skepticism toward governmental actions. This involves confidence in the capacity of individuals to make decisions not only in their own interests, but also usually in the interests of society at large. Such a shift in attitudes would require more flexible approaches toward hot button issues like gays in the military, gay marriage, abortions, cell stem research, and toward many other issues of this type. It will not be easy for the Republican Party to emerge from the doldrums if it cannot embrace such a consistently skeptical view of government.
But if you argue live-and-let-live doesn’t not apply to any social issues – that the government should always step in, at any time and any place, and stop people from making bad moral decisions (see Terri Schiavo or anything you want on gay marriage) – then you find people growing tired of your sanctimonious scolding. Some things are not your business. And all Obama has to do is ask the reasonable people, and not the scolds, to come on over. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. As for the scolds, let them have Cheney and Rush.
Actually, in the Weekly Standard, William Kristol now argues it is time to go Full-Cheney, even if the guy is one of the least popular figures in America. It only stands to reason:
An intelligent and knowledgeable advocate – even if he’s personally not so popular – can do a lot to get an issue front and center. And the debate of that issue can do political damage to the existing administration and its congressional allies. The real question any Republican strategist should ask himself is this: What will Republican chances be in 2012 if voters don’t remember the Bush administration – however problematic in other areas – as successful in defending the country after 9/11? To give this issue away would be to accept a post-Herbert-Hoover-like-fate for today’s GOP. That’s why Republicans should listen carefully when Cheney gives a speech this week in which he’ll lay out the case for the surveillance, detention, and interrogation policies of the Bush administration in the war against terror.
Sullivan finds that laughable:
If Kristol and Cheney believe that conservatism should become the political philosophy that gives the executive branch absolute power to tap any phone without a warrant, seize anyone in the US or world, deny them any due process and torture them for “intelligence” – then they are welcome to do so. But at some point, surely, decent conservatives who believe that the West’s defense does not need a police state and a torture regime will fight back. At some point, surely, some conservatives will advocate a sane intelligence-gathering policy and an adult understanding that total security is impossible in a free and interconnected world – and that only unscrupulous, cynics pretend otherwise for the goal of manipulating public fears for political advantage.
Or are they all still as bullied by Rove and Cheney and Kristol as they were for the eight years these goons ran their party and their country into the ground?
It would be wise to bet on the latter. And Sullivan argues that Kristol knows better:
He, like Cheney, is beginning to understand that history is beginning to gel around the assumption that the Bush-Cheney administration presided over the worst attack on US soil in history and failed to capture or bring to justice any of its perpetrators, put the next generation into unparalleled and unsustainable debt, did nothing to combat climate change, viciously opposed the civil rights movement of its time, shrunk the GOP to one in five voters, precipitated the worst recession since the 1930s, took the US into two grueling, unwinnable wars, humiliated the US at the UN with fatally flawed intelligence for war in Iraq, and destroyed the credibility and endurance of the Geneva Conventions, thus ensuring that future captured Americans will be tortured with no recourse.
Hey – Huntsman walked away. There’s work to do. There’s no time for foolishness.
And politically, the Republicans just got their clock cleaned – again. You may not respect politicians, but Obama seems to know how to play the game, and win gracefully. They underestimated him.