Shmulik Almany/Atlantic Council

Politics

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Could Jon Huntsman beat Clinton on Foreign Policy?

Republicans have agonized over the Party’s failure to capture the White House in 2012. A large emphasis of that campaign, and indeed much of the GOP’s efforts since 2010 to reclaim power in Washington, has focused on economic issues. Seeming to invoke James Carville famous adage, “it’s the economy, stupid,” Mitt Romney never failed to mention unemployment numbers and the rise of welfare recipients while campaigning in 2012.

Naturally, many pundits argue that the failure of the GOP to win in 2012 demonstrates the failure of Romney to convince voters that his economic agenda was preferable to President Obama’s. However, this seems to neglect the fact that Romney was able to win quite convincingly on economic issues. In 2016, the GOP in order to win will need to – in addition to maintaining a strong focus on jobs and the economy – also be competitive on foreign policy.

If the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee is Hillary Clinton, this may pose a problem for Republicans when it comes to foreign policy. As a former Secretary of State, Clinton is able to claim a wealth of foreign policy experience. Her vocal advocacy of the raid to capture and kill Osama bin Laden, over the objections of others in the administration like Vice President Joe Biden is one of her strengths.

These assets demonstrate the strength a Clinton candidacy could have for voters who care about national security issues. The Republican strategy for such a showdown is Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.

In a strategy to disqualify Clinton before she even begins to campaign, many Republicans (most prominently Representative Darrell Issa) have led a charge against Clinton for allegedly not doing enough to prevent the deaths of four Americans – including the U.S. Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, during the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

Despite the fact that many Americans are acquainted with the attacks and most disapprove of Clinton’s performance during them, this nonetheless has failed to bring her favorability numbers drastically down. Two-thirds of those voters surveyed still identify Clinton as “honest and trustworthy.” Consequently, it is likely that the Republican Party will be unable to simply defame Hillary Clinton in order to disqualify her foreign policy credibility among voters.

A string of international crises – Russian aggression in Crimea, a revolution in Egypt, the destabilization of Iraq, etc. – combined with an improving economy will comparatively increase the relative importance of foreign policy concerns in 2016 political framing. Left unchecked, these national security issues could play to the Democrats’ and Clinton’s strength. The individual best able to challenge Clinton’s appeal on foreign policy may be the former U.S. Ambassador to China and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman. In many ways, Huntsman offers Republicans a unique opportunity to stay competitive on foreign affairs when other Republicans cannot.

As a two-time Ambassador (first to Singapore under George H. W. Bush and then to China under Obama), Huntsman has diplomatic credibility in policy circles that is bolstered by his chairmanship of the non-partisan Atlantic Council and as a Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institute. This isn’t just an esoteric advantage – it’s perhaps one of the most important advantages a Republican can invoke in 2016. With a record 68 percent of Americans viewing Vladimir Putin’s Russia as “unfriendly or an enemy,” and a majority distrusting China, the demand for a candidate with experience in foreign affairs who can effectively and responsibly articulate U.S. geopolitical leadership will be high.

Huntsman, fluent in Mandarin Chinese, having served as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative in the past, and having advocated for greater U.S.-Pacific economic and diplomatic relations to check the rise of China as the next step in American foreign policy, is able to meet that demand and in doing so better typifies the “pivot to Asia” in U.S. grand strategy that Hillary Clinton has been advocating.

Additionally, Huntsman may be able to make criticisms of Clinton on Benghazi more credible in three ways. First, having served as an Ambassador himself, Huntsman can more convincingly explain the importance of security for America’s diplomatic envoys and their families. Furthermore, Huntsman opposed American intervention in Libya and stressed limiting any involvement to diplomatic and non-military means, unlike several Republicans who pushed the Obama administration to topple the Qaddafi regime.

Lastly many Americans have been weary of claims of a conspiracy or a cover-up during the consulate attacks. Indeed, the seeming cognitive dissonance of overwhelmingly negative marks for Clinton’s handling of the incident that have had no impact on her overall approval rating appears to support the idea that even if voters blame the Obama administration and Clinton in particular, they do not see a malicious plot. Huntsman has chosen to err on the side of calling Benghazi “a horrible case of miscommunication by the White House” rather than “really malicious behavior on the part of some public servants.” That nuanced distinction allows Huntsman to appear more sincere and yet still criticize the miscommunication, which was allowed to take place. Thus making the case against Clinton.

Agnostic to issues of policy experience, though, many commentators like Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post have pointed to the implausibility of Jon Huntsman being nominated for president by the Republicans in 2016 for a variety of reasons. I disagree. First, the fundamental question in the invisible primary – the race for money, donors and strategists – is who will be able to coalesce the GOP’s moneyed interests (an unfortunate reality in a post-Citizens United campaign finance world.)

For the most part the reason Huntsman was unable to raise significant funds in 2012, as many have pointed out, was the support that may have otherwise gone to Huntsman but that Team Romney was able to attract. Potential contenders for the top-dollar donors in 2016 have included New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has since become damaged by the “Bridgegate” scandal and more recently former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. If Bush decides not to run, which is within the realm of possibility, Huntsman – the scion of a wealthy family of industrialists – may attract a sizeable fundraising base that will be viable enough to run a national campaign. Secondly, though, is the fact that a jump-start in early primary states like New Hampshire may catalyze a nomination.

A recent poll of Granite State Republicans found that Huntsman, despite very little media speculation, and no recent trips to the area, was within the margin-of-error of the lead in a potential primary matchup against Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Bush and others. A large war chest flanked by a convincing win in the first-in-the-nation primary could lead to the 2016 nomination for Huntsman.

However, while this is all possible – it also misses the point. Whether or not Jon Huntsman even runs for the GOP nomination, much less wins it, the Party ought to take note of the policy skills and likeability he brings to the Republican brand. Placing Huntsman on the 2016 ticket as a vice presidential candidate or even being willing to use him as a prominent surrogate on the trail can be integral to cutting into the edge a nominee such as Hillary Clinton would have on foreign policy.

While the Republican Party since 2008 has made inroads at being competitive on economic issues, it still remains that international concerns and the lack of maintaining traditional advantages on such issues can be the deciding factors holding back the GOP, as it arguably did with Romney. A competent, savvy and generally well-liked Republican with extensive foreign policy experience may be just what the doctor ordered to prescribe a win in 2016.