Huntsman Should Run to Lose in 2012

I sat down early this morning to write a blog bemoaning the fact that Ambassador Jon Huntsman must leave China soon or declare that he isn’t a 2012 candidate. My reasoning was that in the political world, like the business world, once an entity is “in play” it is hard to return to the status quo. Then I flipped to the Politico website and learned that Huntsman had just submitted his resignation to the White House. So I had to start over.

Huntsman was put in play for the 2012 Republican nomination by “The Manchurian Candidate” Newsweek article HERE a month ago in which he refused to directly answer a question about the 2012 race but described his future presidential aspirations as: “You know, I’m really focused on what we’re doing in our current position. But we won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” Newsweek characterized this as a “winking response” that was “about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you’ll get from a sitting member of the incumbent’s administration.”

Pundits from Politico HERE and The Washington Post HERE followed up with reports that Huntsman has been meeting with Republican political operators who are ready to launch his 2012 candidacy. They cite sources close to Huntsman as saying that he will make his final decision in June or July.

Huntsman was national co-chairman of John McCain’s 2008 race against Obama. And his inner circle of advisors is said to include heavyweight veterans of that campaign: John Weaver, once McCain’s chief strategist; Fred Davis, who produced ads for McCain; and former Texas Congressman Tom Loeffler, who was national finance chair for McCain. They reportedly have established the “Horizon PAC” to serve as a vehicle for his future campaign organization.

In the short term, this is not good for US-China relations. Huntsman is the most capable and effective ambassador that Washington has dispatched to Beijing in many years. No matter how solid his integrity or smooth his political skills, Huntsman simply couldn’t continue to sit in Beijing and represent a president who he may run against.

This became clear during President Hu Jintao’s state visit last month when Obama joked in response to a question during the press conference with Hu. “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,” said Obama. “And I’m sure that him having worked so well for me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

Ambassador Huntsman isn’t talking these days. So it isn’t clear if he purposely triggered these events, or if he has been pulled onto this roller coaster by media speculation and GOP operatives who dream of a sane and rational candidate to face off against Obama in 2012.

So why do I suggest that Huntsman should run to lose in 2012?

So far, the GOP lineup looks like the background cast of One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest. The menagerie cavorting and snorting on Fox News these days includes Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Mike Huckabee. Donald Trump is threatening to toss his comb-over into the ring. Even “Minnesota Nice” Tim Pawlenty is practicing baring his fangs.

Unless some cataclysmic event turns the world upside down, the GOP race will be a bloody smackdown, with the Tea Partiers, radio and TV pundits and the aforementioned menagerie pushing the debate into territory where even Glenn Beck could worry about falling off the edge.

To capture the nomination, Huntsman will almost certainly have to “McCainize” himself, gutting his integrity and credibility by running further and further to the right as the primary season progresses. Instead, Huntsman should be who he is: a thoughtful moderate who knows that America needs to wake up and change. He is the only GOP candidate on the horizon with serious foreign policy experience, and he knows that the country is facing a new day with global competition from rapidly rising China and India.

That means a Huntsman campaign that focuses on many of the same issues that Obama outlined in his recent State of the Union speech. Reforming the US education system, fixing immigration, and reigniting American innovation and business competitiveness. That won’t win him the nomination in 2012. But it could establish Huntsman as the GOP frontrunner for 2016.

That may be why he is even considering a 2012 run. Obama will be tough to beat in 2012. But if Huntsman stays out of the GOP race, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or another sensible and capable Republican may use the GOP primaries to set themselves up for 2016.

When Huntsman arrived in Beijing in the summer of 2009, the Washington wisdom was that he was burnishing his foreign policy credentials for a 2016 run. But Huntsman was also taking another step in his China journey that began in the Oval Office when he was age 11.

In 1971, Huntsman visited Nixon with his father, Utah billionaire businessman and Nixon advisor Jon Huntsman Sr. By chance, Henry Kissinger was also there, preparing to head off on his secret mission to China. According to a 2009 Newsweek story HERE published as Huntsman arrived in Beijing, “Jon Jr. was allowed to carry the national-security adviser’s briefcase to a waiting car. The boy asked Kissinger where he was going, and Huntsman recalls the reply: “Please don’t tell anyone. I’m going to China.”

Huntsman went on to learn Mandarin during his Mormon mission in Taiwan, accompany Ronald Reagan to meet Deng Xiaoping, and serve as Ambassador to Singapore and as a deputy US Trade Representative in between stints in business and the Utah governorship.

There is no doubt that Huntsman is a presidential quality person. Having a president with his China chops would be very good for America. But his real opportunity may be the 2016 race – and then only if he can remain true to his beliefs and maintain his integrity in a 2012 practice run.

One GOP operative told Politico that Huntsman’s 2012 prospects are similar to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s failed 2008 campaign. “In the end, the Republican Party wasn’t going to nominate a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-gun New York City mayor,” said the strategist. “He’s gonna say, ‘I’m running from Washington, DC, as an Obama appointee’? I just don’t see it coming together.”

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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.

2 Responses to Huntsman Should Run to Lose in 2012

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Huntsman Should Run to Lose in 2012 « James McGregor -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: China Watchers React To Huntsman’s Resignation, Possible Candidacy - China Real Time Report - WSJ

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