Official Washington was hit with a political bombshell late Friday night with the news that Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R., Utah), a rising star in the Republican party, had agreed to become the U.S. ambassador to China and would resign his position as governor.
Huntsman’s decision to take the job, and Pres. Barack Obama’s decision to offer it tell us a lot about both people.
First, Governor Huntsman has made a calculation that he would not be running for president in 2012. Recently former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe complimented Governor Huntsman, saying, “I think he’s really out there speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party,” according to the ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City, Utah. It would be nearly impossible to build the political team necessary to win a GOP primary from a foreign country. As a new ambassador based in the capital of one of the most strategically important countries in the world, Huntsman will likely remain in the job for several years, potentially through 2012 election. This new job, although a stepping stone for George H.W. Bush on his way to the White House as vice president, will give him very little media coverage in the U.S. Perhaps Governor Huntsman stretched his toe into the 2012 waters only slightly and decided that either Obama would be too difficult to beat in four years or that his moderate, big-tent conservative philosophy was untenable in a 2012 GOP primary. Either way, he is off the short list in the GOP field.
Second, Governor Huntsman is uniquely qualified for the job. He speaks fluent Mandarin from his time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore in the first Bush administration (and at the time was the youngest ambassador in a century) and then was named deputy U.S. trade representative in the first term of George W. Bush’s administration. In both roles, he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Governor Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted a daughter from China and he has traveled in the country extensively.
Third, Governor Huntsman’s decision will let him address issues of global importance. After his historic reelection victory in 2008 with over 77% of the vote, Gov. Huntsman is leaving a comfortable job as the top executive in the reddest of states, Utah, for a foreign capital and thorny bilateral policy issues, including trade, North Korean disarmament, and global climate change. In the end, he was asked by the president of the United States to do a job that he was uniquely qualified for at a critical time in history and it’s hard to refuse a president.
For President Obama, this is a major coup for his administration. Obama’s efforts to place Republicans in his Cabinet have been limited to retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a registered independent, and nominating his personal friend, retiring Congressman Ray LaHood (R., Ill.), as the secretary of Transportation. Now, Obama has persuaded a rising-star Republican to join his team in taking a difficult assignment in a foreign country.
Huntsman was National Co-Chairman of Sen. John McCain’s (R., Ariz.) presidential campaign in 2008, and said he did not expect to be “called into action by the person who beat us.” Obama asked the governor to give up his current job, join his administration, represent the U.S. abroad, serve the country, and put politics aside. On Saturday morning at the announcement, Huntsman said, “When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that to me is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge.”
The president asked and the governor said yes.
– Matt Mackowiak is a Washington, D.C.-based political and communications consultant and former Press Secretary to two Republican U.S. Senators.