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That Dog Won't Huntsman

11:27 AM, May 18, 2009 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Over the weekend, President Obama selected Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican (duh! It's Utah!), to be his ambassador to China. Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin, whip-smart, and a guy who holds respectable, establishmentarian opinions on a host of issues, namely, the need for the GOP to "moderate." By selecting Huntsman, Obama reasserts his bipartisan credentials, and makes a pick based on expertise (those language skills, experience in the region) rather than political connections. A good move.

Another story-line is emerging from the Huntsman pick, however, and it's not persuasive. Huntsman was widely known to have been considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Yes, Obama's first year in office isn't half-done yet. But that hasn't stopped the Beltway's permanent presidential parlor game. Indeed, one of Huntsman's presidential campaign advisers, John Weaver, tells Byron York today that the GOP is headed "for a blowout" in 2012 unless it nominates a Huntsman-like moderate. The party, Weaver says, cannot be defined by Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. Other analysts agree, arguing that Obama is brilliantly absorbing the Republican center and thus dooming the party to near-term irrelevancy.

This is exactly the line of argument coming from the administration itself. Earlier this week, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told a Salt Lake City television station that Huntsman made him "queasy." "I think he's really out there speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party," Plouffe said. Of course Plouffe thinks so. He's a liberal, and Huntsman has been saying that the GOP needs to move in a more liberal direction. (And, incidentally, isn't it possible that when Plouffe made that comment, he already knew that Obama was going to select Huntsman for the Beijing post?)

The administration would like the voting public to believe that the GOP is outside the mainstream. Co-opting centrist Republicans like Huntsman reinforces that notion. But the problem with this argument is that what is "mainstream" changes over time. As unpopular as the Republican party is at the moment, it is actually winning a lot of the debates in Washington. Cap-and-trade has little chance of passing, health care is just as dicey, Americans are concerned about Obama's reckless accumulation of national debt, Nancy Pelosi is playing defense for the first time in her speakership, and the president has reversed himself on military commissions, abuse photos, and preventive detention. Victory or near-victory in these policy battles hasn't redounded to the GOP's benefit because the public still associates the Republican party with George W. Bush's failed second term, specifically the years 2005-2006 and the recession that began in December 2007.

It takes a while for the public to catch up. When they do - and it may not happen until 2016 - they'll go looking for someone who, in all likelihood, opposed the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and ObamaCare. He (or she!) won't be a moderate, and won't be named Huntsman. Why? Because an Obama-friendly moderate stands absolutely no chance of winning a Republican presidential nomination anytime soon. The coalition that would nominate such a man (or woman!) exists, sure. In the Democratic party. Not the GOP.

The Huntsman pick is good for the country and good for the president. But it has absolutely no impact on the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.