President Barack Obama’s decision to appoint Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China Saturday doesn’t merely remove a likely challenger – it strips the Republican party of one of its few voices urging moderation.
Obama’s pick leaves the GOP without an obvious centrist presidential candidate two years before the primary jockeying begins in full. By dispatching Huntsman to Beijing, Obama is effectively trying to determine the sort of Republican he and his top advisers would like to face in 2012.
“Brilliant,” said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon of the appointment. “Keep your friends close and your enemies in China.”
Huntsman, a popular two-term governor from one of America’s reddest states, had been moving quickly since the November election to position himself for a presidential run. He had also embraced the role of party reformer, urging the GOP to shift toward the middle on the environment, gay rights and immigration.
Huntsman may have had a difficult time winning the Republican nomination, given the conservative states that dominate the early primary calendar. But he surely would have had a prominent role in the battle for the Republican Party – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Obama’s high command, who for months have worked to spotlight their preferred opponents, including talk show host Rush Limbaugh and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“It’s great politics,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, an outspoken moderate and shrewd political thinker. He noted the well-publicized move last month by a Michigan county Republican party to bar Huntsman from speaking because of his centrist views. “They kick Huntsman out telling him you’re not wanted, and Obama says you’re welcome here,” Davis said.
“It says in spades what is the problem with our party – we’re driving out the heretics, and they’re looking for converts.”
“There’s no doubt that they didn’t want to run against this kind of Republican,” said another top GOP strategist. “Now who are the faces of our party? Cheney, Sarah Palin, Newt [Gingrich] and Rush Limbaugh.”
With no obvious figure to step into the Republican middle-ground, the party is left dominated by a conservative wing that may be open to refining its message, but has little appetite to rebuild by moderating its plicy positions.
There is no GOP version of the Democratic Leadership Council, but if there were, Huntsman would be one of its lonely members. It’s as if, to carry the parallel, Obama has moved to get a Bill Clinton-style figure out of the way to leave a party dominated by old-guard Walter Mondales.
For Obama officials, the hope is that Huntsman's move underlines that the GOP is, in Democratic terms, closer to 1984 than 1992.
“I don’t think he’s giving up his Republican bona fides, but it’s a judgment on his part that it will take more than one cycle for the party to re-generate,” said a senior administration official.
Huntsman was a month away from opening a PAC and had been moving all spring to develop a political organization in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan with some of the top operatives in those states, according to Republican sources.
He had even brought on a veteran campaign consultant, former John McCain strategist John Weaver, to help him navigate the early primary states.
At the same time, though, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina hatched an idea to get Huntsman to Beijing and out of Nashua. And Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel opened a private line of communication with Huntsman.
“Rahm got the sense he’d be open to it,” said a top Democrat close to the White House. “Huntsman seemed to appreciate this president would be in a good position in 2012.”
Huntsman was deemed as sufficiently open to the job that he was asked to see the president last Saturday, while in town for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
Joined by his wife, Mary Kaye, in the White House, Huntsman was asked directly by the president to serve in the high-profile post.
"That to me is the end of the conversation,” Huntsman said at his announcement ceremony this morning.
White House officials, while not denying the obvious political benefit, stressed Huntsman’s sterling qualifications for the position.
“It underscores what the president has tried to project throughout his career – that he wants to work with whoever wants to work with him,” said a senior administration official.
Obama had long promised to include Republicans in his administration, and had earlier sought to mix a campaign promise with a more obvious political motive: tapping Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) as his Commerce Secretary and opening up a long-held GOP Senate seat in an increasingly blue state.
But even though Gregg had second thoughts about that appointment, White House officials kept looking for opportunities to score a two-fer.
In Huntsman, 49, they have an indisputably qualified official, somebody who speaks Mandarin Chinese and has already served as a top American trade official and as Ambassador to Singapore.
“It shores up their bipartisan bona fides and there’s no reason to think he’s not perfectly qualified for the job,” said veteran Democratic strategist Jim Jordan.
Crowed a top Democrat close to the White House: “It does check a lot of boxes pretty neatly doesn’t it?”
Since the transition, this White House has been engaged in picking off carefully targeted Republicans.
First, they appointed retiring Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL) as Transportation Secretary, removing a potential gubernatorial or Senate contender from the moderate wing of the Illinois GOP.
Then it was Gregg.
And then, soon after his stimulus vote, veteran Pennslyvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter became the object of an intense lobbying effort by Vice President Joe Biden to switch parties.
When he did last month, it put Senate Democrats on the threshold of a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority.
But more broadly it helped Democrats drive a message about a Republican Party that had no room for moderates — something the White House believes the departure of Huntsman underscores, as well.
“When that party loses voices like Specter, like Huntsman, it narrows them,” said a senior White House official.
Among Huntsman’s putative Republican rivals, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty could benefit the most.
Like Romney, Huntsman is the scion of a wealthy Mormon family, who could have bankrolled a significant part of his campaign and would have tapped into a network of affluent Mormon donors.
And while Romney is more to the right than Huntsman, the absence of a centrist in the field is likely to benefit the former Massachusetts governor – especially if he tries to position himself as more of the moderate pragmatist he was in Boston than the conservative he campaigned as in 2008 to try to outflank John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
Pawlenty has also been outspoken about the GOP’s need to reform, though from a populist or “Sam’s Club” orientation aimed at reaching blue-collar Americans. With a field sure to be dominated by conservatives, the youthful Pawlenty could appeal to the party as one of the few heartland Republicans left able to win in a Democratic-dominated state.
Pawlenty is mulling whether to seek a third term next year, a decision widely seen as offering a window into his presidential ambitions. To run and lose would likely knock him out of contention.
As for Huntsman, his boosters believe he could be a strong contender in 2016, when he'll still only be 56. He could be especially well-situated as China continues its geopolitical ascent. But for now he's on the presidential sidelines — just where Obama wants him.