Playing a China Card: Hidden Genius in the (Bogus) Huntsman Story?

By James Fallows

I mentioned yesterday how preposterous I thought it was for Newsweek to tout the idea that Jon Huntsman Jr, the Republican ex-governor of Utah now serving as US Ambassador to China, was about to enter the 2012 presidential race to unseat Barack Obama, rather than aiming at 2016 or whenever.

Summary version of the "are you kidding?" case:
    1) In the primaries, why would Republican voters choose an Obama Administration team member as the leader of the anti-Obama crusade?
    2) In the general election, how would an Obama Administration team member argue that returning the Obama Administration to power would be a horrible mistake?
    3) Even before the elections, how could a person as plugged-in and savvy as Huntsman not have thought of points 1 and 2? And in any case, he needed to have started yesterday if he were planning a serious run this time.

But a friend in Beijing writes to say that there may be a hidden logic or silver lining to the rumor -- on Huntsman's side, if not on Newsweek's. This friend is neither American nor Chinese, but he knows Huntsman, and he deals every day with Chinese officialdom. In the haiku eloquence of a tweet he writes:

>>That interview is going to raise JH's effectiveness as ambassador exponentially with the Chinese. The way they like to hedge....<<

Ie, there is nothing that will get the attention of the Zhongnanhai leadership like the idea that the mere ambassador they are humoring today could be back another day as a mighty American President. That vague future possibility is already built in with Huntsman, but this story, which Chinese officials won't be sure they can dismiss, should concentrate their minds.

I'd love to think that Obama and Huntsman deliberately planted this rumor as a way of ramping up US diplomatic effectiveness in China. (After all, there was nothing in it hostile to Obama, which adds to the weirdness of the idea that Huntsman would soon be challenging his current boss.) But usually the explanation for events is more blunder-filled than that. I'll write this off to holiday-weekend press hype -- while hoping that, as my friend says, the commissars take it seriously and therefore take America's representative all the more seriously too.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/01/playing-a-china-card-hidden-genius-in-the-bogus-huntsman-story/68748/