For the last few days, the only big piece of news to linger in the mainstream media besides the turmoil in Egypt has been the fate of Jon Huntsman. Huntsman, a Republican and former governor of Utah, has served since August 2009 as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China. When Obama was beginning his administration, picking Huntsman was an obvious, smart choice: He is a businessman with experience in the region and a firm grasp of Chinese.
While Huntsman was more than capable of representing American interests in the region, there might have been another reason for Obama to pick him. As a telegenic, moderate, and popular governor, Huntsman was a potential competitor. By appointing him ambassador, Obama neutralized a political threat at the same time that he gave his administration some needed credentials in China.
That is, until early last month, when Huntsman hinted that he might leave his post to challenge Obama in the 2012 presidential election. In a January profile, Huntsman told Newsweek, "You know, I'm really focused on what we're doing in our current position. ... But we won't do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones." Since then, Huntsman has recruited advisers -- including former senior advisers for John McCain, George W. Bush, Rick Scott, and Jeb Bush -- and courted donors. Then yesterday, as reported by Politico, he delivered his resignation to the president and all but declared his intention to run for president.
The immediate reaction is: "What?" As a candidate, Huntsman is uniquely ill-suited for the GOP primary electorate. Prior to his appointment, Huntsman was a leading voice of Republican moderation on issues like immigration, the environment, and gay rights. In 2007, he signed on to the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative -- a cap-and-trade system for the Western states -- and in early 2009, while still governor, he announced his support for civil unions. What's more, he accepted federal stimulus funds and castigated his Republican fellow travelers for their partisanship when they did not do so, accusing them of engaging in "gratuitous political swiping." Before joining the Obama administration, his only attack on the president came from the left, when he complained that the stimulus was "too small."
Of course, Huntsman's record isn't all moderation. As governor of Utah, he pursued a strongly pro-business agenda, with large tax cuts for corporations and higher-income households. He is anti-abortion and pro-gun, describes himself as a social conservative, and endorsed school vouchers in a 2007 state referendum. He has yet to wade into the fights of the last two years -- over health-care reform and government spending -- but he has praised the Tea Party, calling it a "classical case of a spontaneous uprising of people who are fed up."
Still, it's hard to imagine that any of this would make up for his affiliation with the Obama administration. Only 15 percent of Republicans approve of Obama's performance, and only 11 percent of those who identify as conservative Republicans approve. The right's provocateurs, like Glenn Beck, spin tales of left-wing totalitarianism, and the Tea Party sees Obama as a constitutional usurper and threat to the core values of the country. Barring the impossible -- like a literal transformation into Ronald Reagan -- there is little Huntsman could do to earn the trust of the conservative base.
This leaves us with two options for understanding Huntsman's thought process. Either he's deluded -- which, to be fair, isn't unusual for presidential aspirants -- or he is looking to the future. After all, Huntsman would be an excellent presidential candidate in a 2016 election in which Obama is finishing his presidency amid high approval ratings and good economic growth. As a moderate, technocratic Republican, Huntsman would be well positioned to carry the torch.
Right now, Huntsman has little chance for success. But by starting early, building support, and distancing himself from the president, he gives himself a running start for the next presidential cycle. We can't know for certain, but there's a good chance that Huntsman -- like his former boss -- is playing the long game.