by Evelyn Chan
This issue of ChinaScope will examine the political implications of President Obama¡¯s decision to select popular Utah Governor and moderate Republican, Jon Huntsman to chief diplomatic post in China. As the G20 meeting confirmed, China¡¯s emerging market is a formidable force to help the US weather the financial crisis. However was his decision a calculated move to secure his presidency for 2012 or is Huntsman a prudent choice as US-China relations enter a new level of strategic importance?
In the arena of elite politics, appointments and foreign ambassadorships have been commonly awarded to patrons and loyal supporters, but to placate opposition? This appears to be a workable strategy for the Obama camp. When the President selected Hilary Clinton as his Secretary of State, pundits equally spoke of Machiavellian politics and attempts to acquiesce political rivals from within. President Obama¡¯s promise of inclusive non-partisan politics has continued. Huntsman¡¯s appointment marks a recent current of Republican appointments to the Obama administration, signaling efforts to equally co-opt contenders from without. However, Obama¡¯s decision reflects more than an act of political calculus. Huntsman¡¯s nomination signals a particular turning point for Republicans and a potential shift in US-China relations. In fact, Huntsman¡¯s appointment marks a win-win for all–Democrats, Republicans and even the Chinese have responded favourably to the nomination.
Obama¡¯s announcement came as a surprise to many observers, as Huntsman served as Co-Chairman of Senator McCain¡¯s election campaign. Huntsman, a Mormon and son of self-made billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr., of Huntsman Corporation, has been singled out as a political threat, ironically by both Republicans and Democrats. Despite Huntsman¡¯s popular run as Utah governor, successfully securing a second term in 2008, Huntsman¡¯s political career has been largely overlooked by political watchers in Washington. It was not until recently, when David Plouffe, a key strategist in Obama¡¯s presidential campaign, alluded to Huntsman¡¯s potential to rejuvenate the Republican Party and contest Obama¡¯s bid for a second term, that his political profile gained national salience.
A moderate Republican in a historically Red State, Huntsman made headlines with his centrist position gay rights and environment. Huntsman has expressed support for Civil Unions, despite a state amendment in 2004, bann. Huntsman¡¯s position on climate change also signals a deviation from the traditional views held by staunch Republicans, with his support of a regional cap and trade program. Huntsman therefore represents a new voice for the Republican Party at a time when it is struggling with its collective identity and place in American politics.
Huntsman has not been shy in his criticism of the GOP. Seeking to broaden the Party¡¯s constituency base and attract young voters and the intellectual class, it is precisely his centrist appeal and ability to capture independent voters that has both Democrats and conservative Republicans worried.
While his acceptance of the ambassadorial post may clear the way for President Obama¡¯s reelection in 2012, the Democrats¡¯ reign may be challenged in 2016. Huntsman’s decision may have also been carefully crafted. Foreseeing an uphill battle with the welloiled Obama campaign team, the post¡¯s foreign credentials may give Huntsman the time and edge needed for a Republican comeback.
But beyond the politicking, Huntsman¡¯s appointment marks a smart a choice from a substantive perspective. Jeff Bader, National Security expert on Asia, who worked with Huntsman in the US trade office, recommended him for the post. Having served as an ambassador to Singapore and Deputy US Trade Representative, and as a fluent Mandarin-speaker, Huntsman is undoubtedly qualified for the position. The question remains how Huntsman will manage sensitive issues concerning human rights, North Korea and the rising trade imbalance with China.
Huntsman, InterruptedThe New Republic | May 20, 2009By Zvika Krieger“During our conversations last month in Utah, Huntsman had already begun to realize that perhaps the Republican Party was not ready for him. “You cannot have a successful party based upon a very narrow band, demographically,” he tells me. “You’ve gotta broaden it to include more young people, more people of color, more people who are urban-dwellers, more who are the intelligentsia in America, many who have jettisoned the party. … And that’s ultimately I think how it’s going to play out. We’re just not there yet.”"Obama and Huntsman remarks on Ambassador to China Nomination (full text)Huffington Post | May 16, 2009¡°I am here to announce today the distinguished public servant I’m appointing as our nation’s new ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. I’m making this appointment mindful of its extraordinary significance. Given the breadth of issues at stake in our relationship with China, this ambassadorship is as important as any in the world — because the United States will best be able to deal effectively with global challenges in the 21st century by working in concert with China.¡±In Utah, a National Debate About the G.O.P. Plays Out on a Smaller StageNew York Times | May 24, 3009By Kirk Johnson¡°Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, a hugely popular Republican from one of the nation¡¯s most conservative states, made waves and headlines in recent months by suggesting that his party would need to move toward the center to start winning national elections again.¡±The Republican¡¯s China SydromeThe Guardian | May 20, 2009By David Loewe¡°He has the potential to be for the Republican party what Obama was for the Democrats ¨C a man capable of simultaneously exciting his political base while appealing to the critical group of independent voters. To hear him speak is to know he’s a guy an independent would love.¡±Huntsman attracts supporters in China, U.S. SenateThe Salt Lake Tribune | May 19, 2009By Thomas Burr¡°The Senate has twice confirmed Jon Huntsman Jr. without a hint of controversy and it appears the new nominee to be U.S. ambassador to China is attracting support on both sides of the aisle — and on the other side of the globe.”GOP rising star Huntsman named envoyWashington Times | May 17, 2009By Christina Bellantoni¡°Smiling at Mr. Obama’s side Saturday, Mr. Huntsman acknowledged he “never expected to be standing here,” since he was a national co-chairman for the McCain campaign for the presidency. Just a few months ago, he said his party’s leadership was “gasping for air,” and now he’s left a void in the Republican field for 2012.”Insider Interviews: Huntsman sees Civil Unions as Path to Bigger TentNational Journal | April 30, 2009By Amy Harder¡°We have a real need to broaden our base as a party. When you look at the demographics of the Republican Party, we’ve lost a good many voters and a good many voters have gone independent. And you have to ask yourself a question: Why is the independent “party” larger than either the Republican or Democratic Party?…¡±Balancing act for new US envoy to ChinaThe Business Times | May 22, 2009By Leon Hadar¡°At a time when almost everyone in official Washington agrees that the direction of US relationship with China will help determine America’s geo-strategic and economic status in the coming years, Mr Obama needed to select as his representative in Beijing a respected public figure who was not only fit for the job but who also had the political gravitas to build support on Capitol Hill as America’s ties with the rising East Asian superpower face many tests in the future.¡±POLITICO interview: Gov. HuntsmanPOLITICO | Feb. 24, 2009Alexander Burns¡°They were a very narrow party of angry people. And they started branching out through, maybe, taking a second look at the issues of the day, much like we¡¯re going to have to do for the Republican Party, to reconnect with the youth, to reconnect with people of color, to reconnect with different geographies that we have lost.¡±