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The Daily Need

The view from 10,000 miles: Huntsman brings an outsider’s eye to the 2012 campaign

Then-Ambassador Jon Huntsman in China in 2009. Photo: AP/Charles Dharapak

The views of America from the small-town Tea Party meeting in Iowa and the halls of the State Council in Beijing are probably quite different.

If you’re a Tea Party supporter in Ames, you might see a reckless, irrepressible political class, conspiring to acquire as much power as it can and seeking to implement a European-style social welfare system that will eventually topple under the weight of its own debts, all while snuffing out the freedom and ingenuity of the private sector.

If you’re a Chinese Communist Party official in Zhongnanhai, you might see a debilitated American political system enfeebled by infighting, unable to invest in its own future — in its human capital, its infrastructure and its alternative energy sources — and unable to recover the substantial ground it has lost in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Which view does Jon Huntsman take?

The former Utah governor declared his candidacy for president this week, less than two months after stepping off a plane from Beijing and returning home from nearly two years of diplomatic service in China. In his announcement speech, Huntsman described “the view of America from 10,000 miles away” as one of envy for our political freedoms and excitement at the prospect of overtaking us as the world’s major power.

“They do believe that we are in decline,” Huntsman told Sean Hannity in an interview immediately after the speech. “There is only blue sky ahead for them.”

If Huntsman’s candidacy achieves nothing else, it could at the very least elevate the stakes of what has, until now, been a thoroughly low-stakes campaign. Yes, it is early. Yes, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have talked plenty about the dangers of long-term economic stagnation. And yes, it’s unclear how much tough love Republican voters will want to hear from a candidate they barely know — a candidate who worked for President Obama, no less.

But if there is anything Huntsman brings to the campaign, it’s his outsider’s view of American politics. Most strategists see that as a crippling weakness. Huntsman stepped onto a plane in Washington, D.C., and took off for China just as Republicans were gearing up to challenge Obama on key social and economic issues, such as health care reform and the stimulus. Where was Huntsman during the angry town hall meetings of 2009? The emergence of the Tea Party? The successful Republican campaign to take back the House? The promise, and subsequent battle, to repeal “Obamacare?”

While the Tea Party was staging a revolt here at home, Huntsman was off strolling through pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

And yet, Huntsman’s two years in the political wilderness, so to speak, may offer a rare opportunity to broaden and elevate the discourse of the campaign. America’s place in the world is ever more tenuous by the day. No Republican in the current field has the experience or the credentials to offer a serious answer to America’s slide on the world stage. As Spencer Ackerman of Wired put it this week:

People are focusing on the fact that Huntsman won’t win. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that he can easily shift the Overton Window on security questions. The structural dynamic of the GOP race is that it’s the most foreign-policy-starved that the party’s fielded in a generation. Huntsman’s ambassadorial experience might not grant him that much electorally, but for the purposes of the other candidates, it means Huntsman is the yardstick by which the press will measure the gravity of their foreign policy pronouncements.

Huntsman, by virtue of his absence from the political scene, is also relatively untainted by the toxic nature of our corroded public discourse, with its “death panels” and “Kenyan anti-colonialism,” birthers and “Trig truthers” (a reference to the unsubstantiated theory that Sarah Palin’s grandson, Trig, is actually her son). Huntsman may not have soldiered in any of the Tea Party’s formative battles over the last two years, but he remains untouched by the stigma that may accompany those battles in the minds of moderate Republicans and independents.

Already there are signs that Huntsman’s entry into the race may have prompted his opponents to reconsider their strategic choice to avoid taking a sober, clear-eyed look at America’s place in the world. Pawlenty, who focused almost exclusively on economic issues and government spending at the outset of his campaign, is scheduled to appear at the Council on Foreign Relations next week to deliver “a foreign policy address concerning the Arab Spring and recent decisions concerning U.S. involvement in Afghanistan,” according to CFR.

Even so, Pawlenty is likely to take the Ames-oriented view of America’s foreign policy: Weak and indecisive, losing ground not because of external forces or competitors on the world stage — who have invested billions in education and infrastructure — but because of our own choice to retreat from the front lines and “lead from behind.”

The view from China, of course, is different: America, mired in three difficult wars, is draining more and more of its blood and treasure on intractable conflicts in the world’s most uncertain regions. It has concentrated on nation-building abroad at the expense of nation-building at home, and as a result, is slipping from its perch as the world’s preeminent power.

Which view will Jon Huntsman take?