Obama's savvy chess move



Amidst all your weekend errands and leisure pursuits, you may not have noticed President Obama's fascinating Saturday morning announcement. Before the news inevitably marches on, let's hit the pause button and briefly ponder his decision to name Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to China.

It's actually a two-fer: a substantive foreign policy appointment that doubles as a savvy political chess move.

If you hadn't heard of Jon Huntsman, rest assured that the Obama team had. Huntsman - the current Republican governor of Utah, and a former ambassadorial aide who served under the senior George Bush and the junior George Bush - was fast gaining a reputation as a rare Republican centrist who actually believes in reaching out and growing the party. He was generating considerable buzz as a potential dark-horse presidential contender in 2012, and he was doing nothing to discourage such talk. In short, Huntsman was showing the potential to connect with independent swing voters, unlike Romney/Palin/Gingrich and the rest of the usual Republican suspects...which is why David Plouffe, Obama's '08 political strategist, told a Utah TV interviewer earlier this month that Huntsman was making the Obama team feel "a wee bit queasy."

But not any longer.

By successfully tapping Huntsman for the crucial China job (the guy speaks Mandarin Chinese), Obama has effectively removed Huntsman from the 2012 race - thereby making it far more probable that the Republican nominee will be an orthodox conservative with questionable swing-voter appeal. Which would suit the Obama team just fine.

Absent Huntsman, the next GOP nominee is likely to be somebody like Mitt Romney (who is busy these days washing the cars of skeptical religious conservatives), or Sarah Palin (who may well have peaked in September 2008 anyway), or Newt Gingrich (whose appeal to the middle is roughly the same as Rush Limbaugh's), or potential newbie Mark Sanford (the governor of South Carolina, whose right-wing ideology has thus far compelled him to reject federal stimulus money earmarked for his cash-starved schools.)

In the words of Huntsman's political strategist, John Weaver, a rightward GOP in 2012 could prove disastrous: "If it's 2012 and our party is defined by Palin and Limbaugh and Cheney, then we're headed for a blowout. That's just the truth." (Weaver can't possibly be pleased by Huntsman's decision to take the China post: "He had not made a decision to run for president, but he had made a decision to prepare to run. We were probably a month away from announcing the formation of a political action committee, so we were pretty far down the road.")

From Obama's self-interested standpoint, Huntsman's appointment makes sense on the policy front. He once served as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, where he learned to speak the language; three years ago, he led a trade mission to China; one of his children was adopted from China; he knows the Far East, having served George H. W. Bush as ambassador to Singapore in 1992, when he was only 32 years old; his name had been floated for the China ambassadorship during the tenure of Bush junior, whom he served as a deputy U.S. trade ambassador back in the first term.

And on the political front, Obama, by hiring another Republican, gets to buttress his bipartisan creds. Huntsman last year raised half a million dollars for John McCain, whom he served as a national campaign co-chairman. More importantly, Huntsman was starting to emerge as a prominent voice of sanity within the Republican party.

Here was Huntsman recently, in an interview with Politico, talking about the knee-jerk naysaying congressional Republicans: "These guys aren't doing a thing for us...we will be irrelevant as a party until we become the party of solutions...'No' isn't a solution."

On the party's need to support civil unions for gay people: "I've always thought that we (Republicans) were a little bit behind in terms of equality for people born under the same Constitution."

On the party's need to reach out beyond its conservative base: "I would liken (the GOP's current situation) to the transformation of the Tory Party in (Great Britain). They went through two or three election cycles without recognizing the issues that the younger citizens really felt strongly about. (The Tories) were a very narrow party of angry people. And they started branching out, taking a second look at the issues of the day, much like we're going to have to do for the Republican party, to reconnect with the youth, to reconnect with people of color, to reconnect with different geographies that we have lost."

On the party's need to stress environmental issues, particularly the reality of global warming: "I think we've drifted a little bit from intellectual honesty in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, for example, where they would use rigorous science to back up many of their policies, and in this case, many of their environmental policies. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (in 1970). We declared the war on cancer...We've drifted a little bit from taking seriously the importance of science," and instead stressed "gratuitous rhetoric."

Huntsman has been talking this way in Utah, arguably the reddest state in the country, and yet he has an 84 percent approval rating. This is the guy Obama has erased from the next Republican race - although, naturally, Obama was able to do so only with Huntsman's say-so. And that's probably because Huntsman recognizes the treacherous path that would have likely tripped him up in 2012. Would it really be possible for a pro-science, soft-on-gays Republican to survive the Iowa GOP caucuses, which are typically dominated by the religious conservatives? Could this guy actually become the '12 standard-bearer of what he implicitly calls "a very narrow party of angry people?" (Highly doubtful. He's apparently too "big tent" for the Michigan Republicans, who last month kicked him off their speaker list because of his stance on civil unions.)

No, Huntsman is playing for the longer run. Now's the time to accrue some serious foreign policy experience, all while keeping an eye on 2016. And who knows, if the GOP suffers another electoral thrashing in '12, perhaps next time it will finally get the message and nominate an outreach Republican.