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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Huntsman in 2016?

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IN ANNOUNCING his plan to resign as ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman has baffled me just as much as he did my colleague. It’s not certain that Mr Huntsman wants to run for president in 2012. It may be that he’s sick of living in China, or there’s something else. But 2012 is the likeliest explanation, and certainly Mr Huntsman hasn’t tried to dispel that impression. In that case, just once, I would like to sit down with one of these candidates and a vial of truth potion for a candid explication of their political cost-benefit analyses. It may be that the minds of high-level politicians are idiosyncratic in that they can only conceive of a world in which things go exactly their way and voters flock to their candidacy. Certainly there is circumstantial evidence that this is the case for some of them. But others are recognisably rational about their own careers. I’ve had Mr Huntsman down in that category.

So let’s try to think through logic here. With the skills and experiences described below, Mr Huntsman has always seemed like a credible candidate for high office. When Barack Obama appointed him ambassador, in 2009, it was taken as confirmation: by getting this guy into his own administration, Mr Obama could neutralise that threat for 2012.

The trade-off for Democrats was that Mr Huntsman, who is just 50, would thereby be an even better candidate in the future. He now has substantive, high-profile foreign-policy experience in a tricky context, to add to his executive experience as governor of a state and business experience in both the public and private sectors. However, that’s not a problem for Mr Obama, who has said, with regard to Mr Huntsman, that “partisanship ends at the water’s edge.”

What could be a problem for Mr Obama would be if Mr Huntsman takes his newly polished resume and runs against his old boss, as he may be fixing to do. However, Mr Obama, who is definitely in the “recognisably rational” category, appears to have believed that 2012 would not be an attractive prospect for Mr Huntsman even if he did bail. The White House still seems to take this view. On Saturday night chief of staff Bill Daley alluded to the possible defection:

With Huntsman listening from the end of the head table, Daley said: “I believe Jon Huntsman is here this evening. He’s our ambassador to China–or as we call him at the White House, the Manchurian candidate. I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”

So who’s right, Mr Huntsman or Mr Obama? As my colleague points out, 2012 isn’t a particularly propitious time for a wonky, moderate Republican. The field is already crowded, the primary electorate in a vindictive mood. If we assume that Mr Obama has a good chance of winning reelection, then 2016 looks much more attractive: the pendulum effect will favour Republicans, the country will have moderated on some issues where Mr Huntsman is already moderate, and Mr Huntsman won’t have to fulminate against his old boss.

Some of our commenters are arguing that running in 2012 might benefit Mr Huntsman even if he loses. He might have a shot at being picked as vice-president, and would at least enter the 2016 cycle with more national name recognition. But while there can be benefits from a losing campaign, there are also substantial risks to campaigning—he might make a gaffe, alienate a constituency, or commit to a policy that sounds dicey five years from now.

And for Mr Huntsman, there’s an additional risk of losing his potential unique advantage among Republican candidates. Consider the possible world in which Mr Obama is re-elected and finishes his second term with decent approval ratings. In that case, Mr Huntsman could enter the 2016 race with all the credentials already described. And he’s obviously a Republican—he used to be the governor of Utah, which is not a moderate state. But he would also be well-positioned to win support from moderate Democrats. Mr Obama, for example, wouldn’t really be able to campaign against him. That would be to Mr Huntsman’s benefit, and his alone.

Source: The Economist

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Written by Theophyle

February 2, 2011 at 9:49 am

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