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Jon Huntsman to State?

In light of Susan Rice’s less-than stellar coming out party as a possible nominee to replace Hillary Clinton at State, the Obama administration would do well to find a consensus candidate. Among those mentioned, the one that seems the most obvious is Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China until he stepped down to run for the GOP presidential nomination only to come in 3rd in New Hampshire. Al Gore, the soon to be former Sen. Richard Lugar, Colin Powell and a smattering of other former policymakers and politicos have also been mentioned as possible nominees to replace Clinton.

The problem for President Obama is that the person he most likely prefers, Ambassador Susan Rice, has turned out to be a lemon. She’s antagonized a number of key Senators whose support the administration would need in order to confirm her. Internationally, Russia has already voiced its preference for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) over Susan Rice to replace Clinton.

At the outset a Huntsman nomination would pose a risk of alienating Rice’s supporters [those remaining on Capitol Hill] but in the end they would defer to the president’s decision.

However, support for Rice could soon erode on Capitol Hill as more lawmakers become aware of a possible conflict of interest should she become the next Secretary of State. Rice holds $600,000 of shares in TransCanada. According to Politico, “Potential Secretary of State candidate Susan Rice holds as much as $600,000 of shares in TransCanada, the company seeking State Department approval to build the Keystone XL pipeline.”

“According to her most recent personal finance report, covering 2011 and filed in May 2012, Rice and her husband own between $300,002 and $600,000 in TransCanada stock. Those holdings brought them as much as $20,000 in income in 2011. Federal officials are required to disclose the range of an investment rather than the exact amount.” Rice also has investments in a number of other Canadian firms that would stand to benefit from the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The most obvious problem for both Obama and Huntsman is that the former ambassador is a Republican. However, his more moderate views have been rejected by the right wing of the Republican Party. By choosing Huntsman, Obama would show that he is still willing to reach across the aisle and pick the most qualified candidate. Huntsman would be demonstrating, as he did before when he accepted the ambassadorship to China, that he puts “country first” which was John McCain’s best quality in 2008 before he doomed his chances by picking Sarah Palin.

Nominating Jon Huntsman for the job of Secretary of State would free up Sen. Kerry for the possible job as Secretary of Defense should he choose to accept the appointment (or as some have mentioned former Sen. Chuck Hagel). The danger for Democrats and their majority in the Senate is that if Kerry accepts a cabinet position his Senate seat would become available. However, Obama’s concern should be filling his cabinet with qualified Secs. and not about an open Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Huntsman could easily win confirmation and would have the support of key Republicans. His nomination would build up goodwill between the administration and the GOP who have consistently and with some merit argued that the administration has not done enough to reach out to them.

Huntsman by all accounts served Obama well as his former ambassador to China, and knows Mandarin and the key players which fits well with the administration’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region. His foreign policy positions are in line with Obama’s, a “moderate realist” when it comes to human rights, Afghanistan, trade policy, immigration and military spending. While Huntsman did criticize the Obama administration for its sometimes-fractured relations with Israel, on the key issue of Afghanistan, Huntsman shares the same end goals as the president, a withdrawal of troops sans special operation forces and support personnel like military trainers after the bulk of U.S. forces leave in 2014.

“If you can’t define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we’re wasting our money, and we’re wasting our strategic resources,” Huntsman told Esquire in an interview. “It’s a tribal state, and it always will be. Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it’s now or years from now, we’ll have an incendiary situation…Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don’t think that serves our strategic interests.”

Obama would be hard pressed to find a nominee who agrees with him on every critical area. It should also be noted that Huntsman has had executive experience as a former governor, which is a skill set which would serve him well as Secretary of State.

Whomever Obama does nominate that nominee needs to be free of political baggage and Rice faces an uphill confirmation process with key Republicans threatening to prevent her nomination from coming up for a vote. However, Rice, who supported the president early on during the primaries shouldn’t be totally dismissed. By all accounts she’s served the president well as his U.N. ambassador. She could easily assume the job as Obama’s national security advisor which would not require a Senate confirmation hearing.

Hillary Clinton is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. Although she’s consistently suggested that her political career is over that might change. American politics are fluid in nature. So the larger question is what becomes of Jon Huntsman. It’s not at all clear whether he’ll have a better chance of securing the GOP nomination in four years than he did this year. Perhaps by 2016 Jon Huntsman will run as a Democrat, he’s already viewed as a Rhino by the far right. Clinton/Huntsman 2016 anyone?