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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Huntsman and the Strategic Underpinnings of an Appointment

It didn’t get much more than a day’s attention in the MSM, but the announcement over the weekend that the President was appointing Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as U.S. ambassador to China has created all sorts of insider buzz about the 2012 and 2016 presidential contests and the future of the Republican Party.
Huntsman was by all accounts carefully preparing a 2012 presidential bid, and was rapidly emerging as the one Republican that Democrats feared. Instead, he’s heading to Beijing as an employee of the Obama administration.
Was this, as many commentators asserted, a shrewd maneuver by the White House to “sideline” a potentially dangerous foe? Or, as others suggested, had Huntsman independently decided to cool his presidential ambitions until 2016, when a chastened GOP might turn to him after wearing out its current lurch to the hard right? Or were both strategic considerations in play?
It’s hard to say. With excellent timing, The New Republic has published a long profile of Huntsman by Zvika Krieger that lays out all the relevant facts, including Huntsman’s rivalry with fellow-Mormon Mitt Romney and the unhappy conservative-activist reaction to the governor’s recent endorsement of civil unions for gays and lesbians. You get the impression that perhaps Huntsman seized on the China gig (for which his background strongly prepared him) as an opportunity to sidestep a decision about duking it out with Romney and Palin and Huckabee and Sanford and Lord knows who else in the pursuit of a nomination that turned out to be worthless, much as his friend John McCain did in 2008.
In any event, the payoffs to both sides in the Obama-Huntsman partnership are pretty clear. The President gets a savvy Mandarin-speaking ambassador who can put a bipartisan cast on his efforts to deal with a vast number of U.S.-China issues, from Iran and Darfur to global financial reform to carbon emissions reductions. Huntsman gets a chance to burnish his foreign policy credentials and stay out of the latest struggle for the soul of the GOP. At the moment, it looks like a win-win proposition, particularly for Barack Obama, who will be perfectly happy if there is no “moderate” voice in the 2012 Republican field.

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