Sometime between May and September this year the current U.S. ambassador to China and former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, will decide whether he wants to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
Most political analysts do not believe Huntsman could be nominated in 2012. Some argue that his service as ambassador during the Obama presidency would be viewed by many Republicans as disqualifying. Others believe Huntsman is simply not conservative enough for the GOP in the current political climate.
I believe they are wrong. Here is why:
First, I do not know whether Huntsman will run for president in 2012. My guess is that his final decision will depend on how strong the Republican field looks, especially the current frontrunner, Mitt Romney.
The stronger the field looks, the less likely that Huntsman will run. At the moment the lineup of probable GOP candidates looks weak, a view many Republican and independent analysts share.
Let’s begin with Huntsman’s latest moves, and what they suggest about the kind of campaign he could run, and how it could unite Republican factions and create a potent electoral strategy in November 2012.
Most important, as The New York Times reported yesterday, in his last public address as U.S. ambassador, Huntsmen leveled very strong, very public and in my view very correct criticism of the human-rights abuses by the government of China.
Huntsman’s criticism was very consistent with similar recent protests against China’s human-rights abuses from the State Department and a number of allied nations. There appears to be a growing crackdown by the Chinese government against a widening circle of Chinese dissidents, independent scientists and cultural figures.
Viewed diplomatically, it was extraordinary for a sitting ambassador to a major nation to be as clear, aggressive and detailed as Huntsman was toward China. Viewed politically, this reveals intriguing possibilities about how Huntsman could campaign for the presidency.
Let’s add this: In May, shortly after he returns home from China, Huntsman has agreed to give the commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University.
And this: Horizon PAC, which Huntsman is not involved with, includes strong Huntsman allies and has been hiring and recruiting New Hampshirites with long experience in statewide politics.
It is easy to conceive of Huntsman running a New Hampshire primary campaign that widens his criticism of China well beyond strong condemnation of Chinese human-rights abuses.
Huntsman could initiate a very serious campaign discussion of Chinese manipulation of its currency, and unfair Chinese trade practices that damage New Hampshire and other American workers as part of a larger discussion about the American and world economies.
This kind of campaign would be substantive and issue-based, with a strong public service message that would be reminiscent of the McCain campaigns in New Hampshire in 2008, and even more, 2000.
This approach, consistent with recent Huntsman moves and his political style, would bring a “grownup” message that many voters want. It could have substantial appeal to many Republicans, political independents, blue-collar workers and Reagan Democrats.
Huntsman’s service in China could be a wild-card positive, not the negative most analysts assume, if Huntsman uses it as a basis for a sweeping, thoughtful and authoritative critique of American economic, trade and security policies.
Huntsman’s service as a young White House aide to President Reagan, which is not widely known, will be a major plus to Republican voters who revere Reagan. Even more important, voters are hungry for politicians who respect them as citizens and offer them a cogent and serious conversation about how to understand the issues and meet the challenges that confront America.
At a time when the Republican Party is threatened by a candidate field that is widely perceived as weak, and a brand that is endangered by highly visible voices that alienate the center of the nation, a “thinking person’s conservative” might have great appeal.
As a Democrat, I support the reelection of President Obama. As an American, I want both parties to nominate highly qualified candidates, and Huntsman is high on many lists on this score. As a columnist I view a politics in which the president, the Congress and both parties should all be worried about their polls and suspect the gentleman from Utah has the potential to pull off a New Hampshire surprise.