Over the weekend, President Obama named Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as the next Ambassador to China, a masterstroke of political strategy.
Huntsman may be the most important person you've never heard of. He's a moderate Republican governor in one of the most conservative Republican states, where, until the time of his appointment, he enjoyed approval ratings above 80%. A few weeks back, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe unintentionally elevated Huntsman on the national stage by suggesting that he was one of the few Republican politicians that appeared formidable in 2012.
Huntsman is young, exceptionally smart, quick on his feet, amiable and incredibly articulate; when he speaks, he exudes reasonableness, a quality almost entirely void in the modern Republican party. He has the potential to be for the Republican Party what Obama was for the Democrats - a man capable of simultaneously exciting his base while appealing to an ever-more critical group of Independent voters. To hear him speak is to know he's a guy an Independent would love.
In the wake of Plouffe's comments, and a few high profile trips to critical presidential states, Jon Huntsman made his way onto just about every Washington insider's list of possible 2012 Republican contenders. That is, until he joined the Obama administration.
Huntsman made a calculation, one that other qualified Republicans will no doubt make when contemplating a run against Obama. Anyone smart enough, capable enough to compete against Obama is going to be smart enough not to run. When Obama kicks off his re-election campaign, he'll do so with a two million member donor base already in place. He'll do so with over one million volunteers ready to be reactivated. In his first month, he'll likely raise more than $100 million dollars. His re-election will dwarf his first campaign is size and scope, just as his first campaign dwarfed its online fundraising predecessor in Howard Dean. Just with sheer organization, President Obama will be the most difficult presidential incumbent to defeat in American history. Why fall on that sword, Huntsman must have wondered, when Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin have already eagerly volunteered?
And so, Governor Huntsman will become Ambassador Huntsman and will spend the next few years building his foreign policy credentials for a shot at the White House in 2016. Many on the left have already expressed frustration that Obama would provide such a valuable talking point to the opposition of his successor, and have argued that Obama sold out his party to protect his own reelection. But Obama too has made a calculation, and it has nothing to do with 2012.
The president recognizes that the Republican party is quickly unfurling and that those currently leading it will be incapable, over the next few years, of righting such a wayward ship. There are few Republicans who can fill the void, reverse the hemorrhaging and rebuild the party. Huntsman, once counted among those few, is now off the stage, and on the other side of the world. By co-opting such a valuable politician, Obama has left the GOP flailing. Without a reasonable voice, the noise that has become the skeleton of a once dominant party will echo, unchecked.
Will the ambassadorship help Huntsman in his presidential bid in 2016? Surely, to some extent it will. Adding foreign policy experience to a governor's resume does make for an appealing candidate. But it doesn't lessen the obstacle that Huntsman will face - a Republican primary electorate that will be as unforgiving of his Mormonism as it will be of his time in the Obama administration. And after eight years of John Boehner and Sarah Palin, of Mitch McConnell and Rush Limbaugh, Huntsman may find that there isn't much party left to mobilize. Ultimately Obama understood what Lyndon Johnson said best: "Better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in."