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The GOP’s future on the long boat to China

The GOP’s future on the long boat to China

By Christian Brose

The weekend brought news that Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a serious GOP contender for 2012, is off to Beijing as President Obama’s ambassador to China. This says a lot of things, I think, but none more significant than this: Smart Republican money, not to mention one of the party’s brightest hopefuls, is increasingly starting to believe that Obama will be a two-term president, in large part because the GOP may not be redeemable until 2016. I think that’s Huntsman’s assumption, but is it warranted?

Looking at the possible field for 2012, you would’ve thought that all was not lost for Huntsman. And you’d be agreeing with Obama’s political shop. David Plouffe told Politico on Saturday that the Obama team saw Huntsman as the only candidate who could have threatened Obama, and that this threat wasn’t just an idle one. There’s a decent case for thinking that.

Mike Huckabee looks poised to run again, but after spending three years as a talk show host, instead of fusing his working class populism with smart policy substance, he may find it even harder than he did in 2008 to break through as a credible national candidate. Mitt Romney will also likely run again, but this could be the final act of his political tragedy: a creative, practical problem-solver who ran away from all that in 2008 but still didn’t win the nomination, and who, having flipped once, may find it a reach too far to flop believably back to his true self by 2012, when the GOP needs it most. Romney’s travails may be a warning to Bobby Jindal, who could stay out of the race altogether, rather than tack away from his technocratic whiz-kid allure in order to pander to the Cheneys and Limbaughs of the party. If he does run, though, and if he runs as this Jindal instead of this Jindal, he might win the nomination but undercut himself going forward, and he’s young enough to go a long way. Aside from x-factors like Newt Gingrich and still somewhat unknowns like Mark Sanford, that leaves Sarah Palin, and though she still might choose to sit out 2012 and play the long game, she will likely find the prospect of running again irresistible.

Amid this field, you’d think an experienced, reformist governor, who wears his social conservatism with humility and tolerance, who has shown creativity and pragmatism in breaking with GOP orthodoxy to tackle national problems like health care and the environment, and who has real foreign policy experience (ambassador to Singapore and Bob Zoellick’s deputy at USTR ain’t peanuts), would be a pretty good bet for 2012. So why would Huntsman take himself out of the race?

He probably assumes that the GOP will spend the next few years banging rocks together in the wilderness, throwing moderates like Colin Powell out of the party, and trying to wind the clock back to the early 1980s while the rest of the country moves on. He probably assumes that he’s already established himself as "a different kind of conservative," that the domestic policy fights he’ll face as governor will be frustrating and possibly fruitless, and that the GOP will need a few more electoral thrashings before it is ready to buy what he’s selling. What’s more, he probably assumes that, while the rest of the GOP tears itself apart in naval-gazing fights about the meaning of "true conservatism," he can go off and pad his resume with several years of experience managing America’s largest (and increasingly, its most important) bilateral relationship, and that when he returns in, say, 2014, not only will the GOP primary voters not punish him, they’ll welcome him as a practical, reform-minded leader, attuned to the problems of the 21st century, who puts the national interest above partisan politics — that is, just the kind of guy to lead them to victory in 2016.

As far as assumptions go, these aren’t bad ones in my opinion. But a lot can happen in a year (or three, or five), and as for whether Huntsman’s decision bodes well for Republicans, and for Huntsman himself, only time will tell (and we may need lots of it).