Huntsman’s dilemma: To “look and sound” like the future or really help create it?

The media drumbeat for the 2012 Republican presidential candidacy of Ambassador John Huntsman has moved into the big-band crowd with New York Magazine political writer John Heilemann – co-author of the excellent and gripping 2008 campaign book “Game Change” – posting a missive pointing out that Huntsman is “savvy, serious, smart, and sane”  so it makes sense for him to run in 2012 because the GOP needs him.

While these attributes not easily discernible in the earliest and most eager  GOP candidates who are already braying and bloviating their way toward the nomination, these same attributes should also make Ambassador Huntsman think twice or more about entering the race.

Many responsible Republicans feel that their party is slipping into the territory of the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, which played into fears of immigration,  crime and saloons degrading the country’s morality, among other things. GOP operatives focused on 2012 are desperately looking for a candidate who “looks and sounds like the future,” as Heilemann describes Huntsman, to pull the Republicans back  into the sunlight.

It is likely that more than a few money mavens and political operators will pressure Ambassador Huntsman to head back to DC and try to save the Party. The question is whether he would rescue the Party or sacrifice himself. Huntsman is a sincere man of formidable intellect and political talent who may be occupying one of the most important posts for America’s future right now. He shouldn’t leave it easily or get too caught up White House dreams spun by others. The way the world is going, Ambassador Huntsman’s best bet for building his political future and helping his country may be to continue to focus on the US-China relationship and provide the leadership and wisdom that is desperately needed.

It is not good enough to only “look and sound like the future” when the future of the US is so uncertain as an unstable China rises.

What is most important is to actually help a very confused and insecure America – and a China that is now spasmodic in its flip-flopping between superiority and inferiority complexes – find common ground to move forward together. After the bloodletting of 2012, the US may actually enter a political era in which genuine accomplishment for the good of the country could be the basis for a successful presidential run.

Ambassador Huntsman has until 2016 to figure out  how to do this right. Even if the toxic air-pollution of Beijing, the unrelenting insults from the overconfident Chinese bureaucracy and personal concerns about being closer to his large family compel Huntsman to move back to the US in the next year or two, he doesn’t have to relinquish the China leadership role. There is no genuine China policy leadership in the Obama Administration. Jeff Bader, an excellent China hand, is leaving the National Security Council after a tenure sidetracked from China by constant crisis management for North Korea and other Asian flashpoints. Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, early on in his tenure as Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, tried to shepherd a government-wide assessment and analysis of US-China relations and the resulting policy implications and possibilities. Many memos were written. Many meetings were held. But the effort was overwhelmed by the crisis of the day that formed the biggest piles on everybody’s DC desks.  And now Summers is out the door.

With the statesmen of early US-China relationship on both sides now in their 80s or long-gone, there is a void to be filled. Ambassador Huntsman’s best route to the White House may be as the statesman who realign US-China relations in the next few years instead of trying to be the GOP’s hope for pitting a genuine Boy Scout against the menagerie of mental midgets and the hollow-headed cable TV and radio commentators who now occupy the center ring of the GOP circus. If Huntsman is tired of being ambassador, he can figure out a new platform in DC as America’s new statesman on China. The ambassador, a veteran of the Commerce Department, USTR and State, is sufficiently “savvy, serious, smart, and sane” to construct that platform.


…Aggressively pro-business, he cut taxes, reorganized services, and earned plaudits for turning Utah (according to the Pew Center on the States’ Government Performance Project) into the best-managed state in the country. In 2008, he won reelection with 78 percent of the vote and, in the wake of Obama’s victory that fall, began arguing that the GOP had to improve its standing with young voters by softening its stances on same-sex issues, climate change, and immigration or risk electoral irrelevance…

… a Huntsman candidacy would surely be preceded by a high-profile break with Obama. This would not have to be over China policy. Quite the contrary. The ambassador’s argument would more likely be that, while the administration’s approach to the Middle Kingdom (which he carried out) was solid, Huntsman saw up close how it was undermined by Obama’s profligacy at home. Unquestionably, some in the GOP would never forgive Huntsman for having gone to work for the enemy. But, were his break with the White House skillfully framed, for many others it might make him a kind of hero…

…In a way and by an irony, in fact, the Obama administration may have done the ambassador a huge favor. Far from sidelining him, his China posting has given him the sort of foreign-policy credentials about which every governor who wants to be president fantasizes on a daily basis. The administration has put him on the front lines of what is arguably the most important economic and national-security challenge that the country faces and, in the process, put him in direct touch with the CEOs of some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the country—all of whom make it a point to meet with Huntsman when they are in Beijing, and many of whom are said to have come away deeply impressed. And in a moment in America when anxiety over the long-term threat that China poses to our prosperity is running high, Huntsman is ideally positioned to capitalize on that emotion politically by presenting himself as the man who understands the nature of the challenge and what to do about it best.




About James McGregor
James McGregor is an American author, journalist and businessman who has lived in China for more than 25 years. Currently, he is chairman of APCO Worldwide, Greater China. A professional speaker and commentator who specializes in China’s business, politics and society, he regularly appears in the media to discuss China-related topics. McGregor is the author of the books "No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism" (2012) and "One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China" (2005). He also wrote the 2010 report "China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’ – A Web of Industrial Policies." From 1987 to 1990 McGregor served as The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Taiwan, and from 1990 to 1994 as the paper’s bureau chief in Mainland China. From 1994 to 2000, he was chief executive of Dow Jones & Company in China. After leaving Dow Jones, he was China managing partner for GIV Venture Partners, a $140 million venture capital fund specializing in the Chinese Internet and technology outsourcing. In 1996, McGregor was elected as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. He also served for a decade as a governor of that organization. He is a member of the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, National Committee on US-China Relations and International Council of the Asia Society. He serves on a variety of China-related advisory boards.

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