The Cable

Democratic praise for Huntsman could be the GOP kiss of death

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is a model Obama administration official, praised by his colleagues and admired by top Asia hands. Republicans, however, don’t look favorably on his role as an integral member of Obama’s China team and see it as a detriment to his 2012 presidential chances. A recent Newsweek article speculated that ...

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U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is a model Obama administration official, praised by his colleagues and admired by top Asia hands. Republicans, however, don’t look favorably on his role as an integral member of Obama’s China team and see it as a detriment to his 2012 presidential chances.

A recent Newsweek article speculated that Huntsman, the former Utah governor and Chinese linguist, is making moves to relocate back to the United States and even laying the groundwork for a presidential run next year. However, skepticism in Washington is running high that Huntsman has the will for a presidential run, or a even a reasonable chance of securing the Republican nomination.

Top Obama administration officials and China hands credit Huntsman as a highly skilled manager and diplomat, and say that he has won the respect of Democrats inside the administration and out.

But Republican strategists say that it is the praise of those very Democrats that may hurt Huntsman’s chances within the GOP.

"I have worked with few people that are more impressive than Huntsman. I just think at every level he’s an impressive human being in every respect," a senior administration official told The Cable.

Huntsman has been an effective interlocutor with the Chinese government, the official said, and has established constructive relationships with top officials back in Washington, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The official described Huntsman’s role in Beijing as mostly to communicate and implement U.S. policy on China, but said that he also plays an appropriate role feeding information and analysis back into the policy process, over which he has some influence.

So what does Huntsman think about China? The official said he’s basically in the center of the range of views in China, leaning slightly to the hawkish side, but holds a very pragmatic outlook.

"He’s very persistent on human rights issues, he’s got a good strategic sense," the senior administration official said about Huntsman, who once was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. "He has no blinders; he sees China as it is."

Asia experts close to the administration said Huntsman has been a team player, completely setting aside the fact that he’s from the other party.

"The view inside the Asia team of the Obama administration is this is a man who is competent and who has faithfully pursued the script and narrative inside the White House on China," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

But Cronin said that Huntsman’s close relationship with top Obama officials could be put at risk by the open speculation about his potential presidential run. For example, Democratic officials might feel less secure in sharing sensitive information with Huntsman or could even begin building their own opposition research file based on what they know about him.

"There’s bound to be a chilling effect on working with him as fully as they have been working with him, until something confirms whether he’s going to leave or not," Cronin said.

Republican Asia hands also praised Huntsman’s performance as ambassador while acknowledging that it could come back to bite him if he decides to run.

"He has been terrific for the embassy. They had huge morale problems and a lot of management problems. Huntsman has really turned all that around. The career people are loyal, they like him," said Randall Schriver, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the George W. Bush administration. "On the Chinese side, they respect him a lot and see him as somebody that can deliver on things when they need him to."

But another former Bush administration Asia official said that many in the GOP are unhappy with Obama’s China policy, believing that it does not take a hard enough line toward Beijing, and that this will color their views about Huntsman.

"I don’t see how he can possibly think he can get the nomination. He’s an Obama appointee for a China policy that has been seen as too accommodating and is not where the Republican Party is," the former official said. "The party in general is going to be hawkish."

A top GOP political consultant, viewing Huntsman from a more political than policy perspective, was even more blunt.

"He was never a threat [to win the nomination], and now he’s worked for the administration? Republicans are not going to nominate someone who’s been working for Obama for two years," the consultant said. "Come on, it’s just not serious."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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