President Obama’s nomination of Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to be ambassador to China has thrown the Republican Party’s marginalization into sharp relief. Indeed, it helps to ensure that the party that for years held a distinct advantage in national-security debates will slip even further into irrelevance on foreign policy. For good measure, it appears to knock a serious Obama rival out of future presidential contention.
Fluent in a foreign language, trained in diplomacy, and experienced overseas, Huntsman represents in foreign affairs many of the qualities that his party has come to loathe—and his acceptance of the post indicates that he knows this. The popular Utah governor was in the early stages of building a campaign infrastructure for 2012; over the past few months he had visited early primary states, consulted with former McCain campaign insider John Weaver and pollster Frank Luntz, and organized a network of supporters. Now, instead of being a voice of reason and experience in internal Republican debates, Huntsman will be supporting Obama’s agenda.
Perceived largely as a domestic policy reformer interested in education and the environment, Huntsman held significant foreign-affairs positions in both Bush administrations—as ambassador to Singapore and as deputy trade representative—something none of his probable GOP rivals could claim. He could have been an important counterweight to the ideological bluster that now passes for foreign policy argument on much of the Right. However, it is precisely this background, combined with complaints about his so-called moderate domestic views, that makes him unacceptable to the national security conservatives who dominate the Republican Party.
One of the main themes of the last election (and one of the constants of Republican criticism of the Obama administration) has been Republican contempt for diplomacy and those who would pursue conciliatory policies abroad. Continental parochialism, tired anti-European rhetoric, and fear-mongering demagoguery about vastly exaggerated threats from weak authoritarian regimes have become commonplace on the Right; attempts to steer away from these blunders are routinely pilloried as weak, naïve, or positively anti-American. A figure such as Huntsman could have done a great deal to detoxify the Republican image and restore some balance to the party’s reflexive hawkishness.
Another interesting aspect of Huntsman’s selection is the signal of continuity in China policy it sends, and the reassurance it provides Beijing that U.S.-China ties are not going to change significantly. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, which he learned while on a Mormon mission in Taiwan, Huntsman was also a businessman, so his selection emphasizes the importance of bilateral trade. Consistent with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on shared interests, rather than political reform or human rights, sending Huntsman to Beijing makes it clear that business and borrowing will remain the chief elements of the relationship with China. Even North Korea and nonproliferation questions seem to have faded into the background.
His acceptance of the post seems to guarantee that Huntsman’s presidential ambitions will be put on hold. There is, nevertheless, an alternative view, which holds that Huntsman is merely biding his time and burnishing his credentials for a later date. But this badly misreads the GOP and the party’s attitude towards the administration and anyone associated with it. Huntsman’s supposed “moderate” status—a function as much of his acknowledgment of the party’s lack of ideas as it is any deviations from a party line—will be confirmed in the minds of GOP voters and activists trained to view dissenters as traitors to the cause. Working for Obama is almost sure to diminish if not destroy Huntsman’s status in the party.
To gauge the depth of the GOP’s predicament and its obliviousness to it, one need only note how many conservatives were in fact glad to be rid of Huntsman—even if he was overwhelmingly popular, intelligent, and largely on board with the party’s priorities. The nomination and the Republican reaction send clear signals both that the administration is ready and willing to embrace Republican dissenters—however mild their so-called heresies may be—and that Republicans are actually pleased to lose them. Amid Republican losses in virtually every demographic over the last eight years, there could hardly be a worse time for the party to push political figures, whether rising or long-serving, into the arms of their opponents.