Monday, May 18, 2009


Big Game Huntsman

Damn, this guy is good.

What's that old nugget about the truest things being said in jest?

Maybe closer attention should have been made to President Obama's supposedly "comic" appearance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner one weekend ago. One of the president's jokes:

In the last hundred days, we've also grown the Democratic Party by infusing it with new energy and bringing in fresh, young faces like Arlen Specter. (Laughter.) Now, Joe Biden rightly deserves a lot of credit for convincing Arlen to make the switch, but Secretary Clinton actually had a lot to do with it too. One day she just pulled him aside and she said, Arlen, you know what I always say -- "if you can't beat them, join them." (Laughter.)

The corollary to the "beat them" line might be: "If they all join you, you don't have to worry about them coming to beat you."

Need proof?

On Saturday, Obama pulled one more surprise out of his presidential bag of magic tricks: He appointed Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to China. It's a master stroke on several levels. For one thing, the guy's remarkably qualified for the job: He's an expert on the country and the region and speaks fluent Mandarin from his years as a Mormon missionary. Selecting him shows that the president is serious about forging strong ties with the unarguably the U.S.'s most significant economic and strategic rival. But, this selection is also one more example to which Obama can point as fulfillment of his pledge to have a bipartisan administration. The Republican governor thus helps fill the embarrassing void left when New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg first accepted, then rescinded Obama's invitation to be secretary of commerce.

Finally though, the true genius in selecting Huntsman is that -- like selecting Hillary Clinton as secretary of state -- he removes a potential 2012 rival from the political sphere. Huntsman -- though a conservative (he's a Republican from Utah -- what else would he be?) -- he's shown a strong willingness to work with Democrats in his home state and has been rather critical of the congressional Republicans for their near universal opposition to Obama proposals. Indeed, back in February, he called them "inconsequential." Last month, he also got into a scrap with Michigan conservatives for backing civil unions for gays.

But that very pragmatism could have made him a potentially formidable candidate for the GOP come 2012 -- even if he had to go through a major scrap with the conservative base to get the nomination. Now, for all intents and purposes, he's removed from the field.

Of course, Huntsman may recognize that, at 48, he has more opportunities than just 2012 to consider running for president (unlike, say Hillary). This is the time, as he said Saturday, to accept a president's "call to service." (And perhaps, a cold calculation that Michael Steele's recent suggestion that the current GOP base is going to be problematic for a Mormon candidate in the foreseeable future is fairly accurate).

However, as good a pick as Huntsman is for the country -- and for Obama's near-term future -- his removal from within day-to-day Republican politics could be awful for the party's near future. Whether Huntsman was able to get the 2012 GOP nomination or not, just his presence as a governor distancing himself from the congressional party -- and provoking debates with various aspects of the party base -- would have been healthy.

He would have been a new, younger, voice for a party in desperate need for same. Instead, House Republican leader John Boehner was once again stuck Sunday explaining why it wasn't a big deal that Cheney, Gingrich and Limbaugh were the current face of the party.

And so, the Obama machine absorbs one more Republican piece off the chess board, leaving the party weaker as it loses an internal critic and possible future leader.

Good policy, great politics.

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