Michael Hamar

Jon Huntsman: The Manchurian Candidate?

Filed By Michael Hamar | January 02, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, Chinese gays and lesbians, GOP presidential candidates, Jon Huntsman, presidential primaries, Utah

Just shy of two years ago I wrote here and here about former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and his likely calculated decision to change his stance on opposition to gay rights and to oppose some of the most vocal social conservatives in that state. At the time there was speculation that Huntsman realized that to be attractive to independents and moderates on the national scene, a shift from far right extremism was mandatory.

Subsequently, when Huntsman - who is extremely wealthy - took the position as Obama's ambassador to China, there was speculation that Huntsman was honing his foreign affairs credentials in contemplation of a presidential run for president in 2012. Now, speculation has reappeared and Newsweek has the sub-headline of "When Barack Obama posted Jon Huntsman to Beijing, it looked like a crafty way to sideline a 2012 rival. Don't bet on it."

Given the current field of would be GOP candidates, a bid by Huntsman might make sense - he has conservative credentials but is not batshit crazy like many of his would be opponents. Like Mitt Romney, Huntsman should he run, will have the challenge of overcoming his Mormon faith with the lunatic Christianist of the GOP base. Here are highlights from Newsweek:

The Huntsmans' new home in the posh D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama is the prototype of pricey Washington real estate: a tall, boxy structure defined by red brick and right angles. Last spring, Bravo used the space to film its reality show Top Chef: Washington, D.C., but on a Sunday morning in mid-December, the spacious rooms on the first floor were largely unfurnished. "We've been living out of boxes for the last two years," says Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned the Utah governorship in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China. "We're just now unpacking things we didn't even remember we had. It's like Christmas."

The federal-style house attracted a small wave of Utah media attention last fall when Washingtonian magazine first noted the Huntsmans' $3.6 million purchase on its real-estate page. It was just the sort of trivial Beltway gossip that lends itself to breathless interpretation by local political reporters, and both Salt Lake City dailies dutifully ran articles speculating that the hometown hero might soon return to the States gunning for higher office. It wasn't a ridiculous notion. The moderate Republican had once been considered a rising star in the GOP and a likely 2012 contender, with David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign mastermind, even identifying Huntsman as the only Republican who made him "a wee bit queasy" about the next race. But speculation ended abruptly in 2009 when Obama tapped Huntsman for the ambassadorship. National pundits called the appointment a shrewd move by the White House to sideline a potential rival, and then promptly forgot about him--which is probably why last fall's Beehive State buzz was drowned out on the national stage by the noise of the midterms.

Now, it appears, the ambassador is ready to make some noise of his own. Sitting in the echo-y living room of his new Washington home, Huntsman, a tall, lean man with silver hair and impeccable posture, pauses only briefly when faced with the question of presidential aspirations. "You know, I'm really focused on what we're doing in our current position," he says. "But we won't do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones." Asked whether he is prepared to rule out a run in 2012 (since it would require him to campaign against his current boss), he declines to comment.

The winking response--about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you'll get from a sitting member of the incumbent's administration--could just be a hollow cry for attention. But sources close to Huntsman (who requested anonymity to speak freely without his permission) say that during his December trip to the U.S., he met with several former political advisers in Washington and Salt Lake City to discuss a potential campaign. "I'm not saying he's running," says one supporter who has worked with him in the past. "But we're a fire squad; if he says the word, we can get things going fast." What's more, Huntsman tells NEWSWEEK that when he accepted the ambassadorial appointment, he promised his family they would "come up for air" sometime in 2010 to decide how much longer they would stay in Beijing. "I'm not announcing anything at all," he says. But he sure seems to be hinting.

Of the half-dozen Republican strategists and pundits contacted by NEWSWEEK in recent weeks, not one listed him as a viable candidate in the upcoming race. The rationale is twofold: as a member of President Obama's administration, Huntsman runs the risk of appearing ungrateful, or even disloyal, if he decides to run; and as a Mormon with ties to Utah, he would face tough competition from likely GOP candidate Mitt Romney as he milks their overlapping networks for donors and campaign talent. But neither obstacle is insurmountable. A Republican-primary candidate could do worse than publicly slighting the Obama White House. And Huntsman wouldn't have much trouble financing the first leg of a presidential campaign on his own: his father, whose company invented the clamshell container for McDonald's to package its Big Macs, is a billionaire. Setting those potential pitfalls aside, then, the big red elephant in the room remains: would the Republican base actually vote for someone like Huntsman?

But a closer look at his record reveals a nuanced approach to Republican politics. Shortly after Obama was swept into office in a tidal wave of Democratic victories, the popular governor began articulating a new national vision for the GOP, one designed to appeal to all time zones. Warning that the party was losing young voters, he argued that Republicans would need to tack to the middle on three hot-button issues if they were to maintain national relevance: immigration, gay rights, and the environment.

Today that strategy might seem out of step with recent GOP victories, but Weaver and many of his fellow moderates believe Huntsman is uniquely qualified to unify competing factions on the right and usher in a new era for the Republican Party. The portrait his most ardent fans paint is one of a natural-born consensus builder, capable of guiding bullheaded stakeholders through sensitive negotiations--and coming out on top. "He's an inclusive person, which, without getting into personalities within our party, unfortunately is a rare commodity," says Weaver, who has advised Huntsman on his political career in the past. "I'm a firm believer that our next great Republican president will be a conservative problem-solver. And to be a problem-solver you have to be inclusive about getting things done."

Huntsman is eager not to appear too idealistic. "You remember that diplomats are pretty much trained as warriors," he says. "I mean, you take a situation up to the brink of having to call in the military. It isn't just making nice with people; it's getting stuff done." With little experience in the national political arena, it's impossible to know what, exactly, Huntsman is capable of getting done. But voters may get a chance to find out sooner than anybody--especially the White House--expected.

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He sounds like Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Same story on the "let's moderate some, shall we?" spiel.