Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 February 2012

Vice President Huntsman?

[For a brief comment on how Xi Jinping’s visit highlights our national weakness, click here.]

Anthony Shadid, R.I.P.

Amidst our decline, there is one thing we Americans still do well. We take immigrants from all corners of the globe, hold them to our bosom, and give them a new home.

That’s what we did with Anthony Shadid’s Lebanese grandparents. Two generations later they produced one of the world’s best foreign correspondents. To see just how good he was, read the encomiums from his fellow journalists.

Shadid died yesterday, while covering the revolt in Syria. Apparently he died of an acute asthma attack. He was allergic to the horses that were carrying him from the field of battle.

I didn’t know Shadid personally. But my eyes and ears always perked up when I saw his name, face or byline. I knew I was going to get a dose of unvarnished reality, seen through the eyes of a poet.

When Shadid reported from the Middle East, he gave us the penetrating view of someone who spoke the language and understood and respected the culture. He showed us how sympathy breeds empathy and understanding—commodities in very short supply.

Shadid was a rare human being who always had time and energy to mentor younger colleagues. I hope his example will encourage more hyphenated Americans to learn his trade, and to retain their legacy of language and culture as they do so. More reporters like Shadid may help humanize us and teach us the real cost of war.

It’s a sad day when a good man falls, and Shadid was one of the best. Let us remember him and try to keep his legacy of truth and empathy.

My wife recently had a great idea. Like many great ideas, it’s idealistic and attractive, even seductive. Maybe it’s also impractical and unrealistic, but I can’t get it out of my head.

What if the President picked Jon Huntsman as his running mate this summer? And what if Huntsman accepted?

Joe Biden has been a good vice president. In private, he’s offered experienced foreign-policy advice, which sometimes has leaked. His push for a counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, opposing General Petraeus’ counter-“insurgency” move, turns out to have been precisely right. And Biden had always had the President’s political back. Among many other things, he’s offered a working-class background and good Catholic credentials to back up the President’s Harvard elitism and weak Protestantism.

But Biden has never professed presidential ambitions. Having fared miserably on his own in 2008, he is probably a realist. He simply does not, in my view, have the rhetorical or political skill to become president, and he probably knows it. He’s a good public servant, doing what he can for our nation with what skills and experience he has. But he’s simply not in the President’s league.

John Huntsman is. If you want proof, watch last night’s interview by Charlie Rose. Here, at last, is a Republican you can respect as intelligent, articulate, honest, forthright and—most of all—knowledgeable.

No one within shouting distance of the White House today has as much knowledge of and practical experience with China and its leaders as Huntsman. And China has, by far, our most important bilateral relationship, utterly eclipsing our “special relationship” with our Mother Country. The future of our species depends on our two nations and how we get along, and Huntsman knows China better than any current public figure.

But the kickers are intelligence and character. Besides the President, there is no one else in public life whom I can watch on TV today and say, “there’s a person who would have made a good leader even back in the sixties.”

Under proper circumstances, including a complete reformation of his Party of Extremists, Huntsman might even induce me to vote for a Republican for president for the first time in my life. Not now, of course, but maybe in 2016. Many thinking people I talk to react to him similarly. We are starved to death for highly qualified people who respect reality and can think and solve real problems, not just read from an obsolete playbook of ideological dogma.

The sad thing is that I know of no similar rising star on the Democratic side. There is no young person of Obama’s caliber waiting in the wings.

Maybe the President will introduce someone like that this summer, just as he introduced himself to the nation in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. But if such a person exists, I think I would at least know his or her name by now. (Elizabeth Warren might be ready after four years as junior senator from Massachusetts. But as much as I like and admire her, I think it’s a little early to talk about the White House, when she so far has had no experience in elected office whatsoever.)

So, unless you think Warren will be ready in four years, you are looking at a Democratic party with no real plans for post-Obama succession. Besides the President himself, the top echelon of presidential contenders, in both parties, has a single entry: Jon Huntsman.

Add to that the nation’s palpable hunger for bipartisan cooperation, in order to right our ship of state and arrest our national decline. Then the notion of a bipartisan White House no longer seems so outlandish. After all, Huntsman already has worked with and for the President as our ambassador to China, apparently with considerable success. Maybe his presidential bid had the President’s secret approval, as a way of introducing Huntsman to the public for just such a move.

How would the public react? Huntsman’s nomination would catch it absolutely flat-footed, just as John McCain’s picking Sarah Palin caught the Democrats and public by surprise. But there would be huge a difference. Whereas Sarah Palin was and is one of the least intelligent and least qualified candidates ever to seek higher office, Huntsman—alone among the current crop of presidential candidates—is of the same caliber as the President himself.

I’m not a political analyst. Nor would I make a good political consultant. But I know three things. First, an Obama-Huntsman ticket would seduce every serious person who craves substantive governance by competent, qualified people. It would suck the oxygen out of Mitt Romney’s campaign, let alone one by Santorum, leaving nothing but desultory support by anti-abortion fanatics, American Taliban, immigrant bashers, and radical libertarians holding their noses and voting reluctantly for an investment banker.

Second, a successful bipartisan presidential ticket would begin the long overdue reformation of the Republican party. Huntsman would have shown that Republicans can win higher office only if they are qualified for it and can work seriously to solve the nation’s many real problems. Unqualified buffoons, ideologues, obstructionists and political chameleons—the Ricks (Perry and Santorum), Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney—need not apply.

Although only vice president, Huntsman would become the party’s de facto leader, should he decide to remain a Republican. By sheer force of competence and brains, not to mention good work in office, he might bring it back from the abyss of dogma into practical governance again.

Third, more than any act, such a ticket would symbolize a commitment to bipartisan governance and real problem solving at the highest level, when nothing is more crucial to our national survival. At a single stroke, the President could demonstrate how cooperation among qualified leaders of good will can work.

As far as I can determine from a quick Internet search, the White House has been bipartisan only twice in our history. In 1796, Thomas Jefferson was elected VP as a Democratic-Republican, to serve with President John Adams, a Federalist. This outcome was not a matter of choice, but the unintended consequence of a peculiar election procedure that shortly afterward we changed.

The only intentionally bipartisan White House arose in 1864, after Lincoln, the first Republican, picked pro-war Democrat Andrew Johnson to serve as VP. With the Civil War’s end already in sight, the candidates obscured their differences by claiming to run under a “Unity” party banner.

That choice didn’t work out so well. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson’s harsh post-war policies replaced Lincoln’s plea for “malice toward none and charity for all.” The result was our Reconstruction, hardly our high point as a nation.

Based on these historical facts, you might fear that Huntsman’s selection would increase the risk of an attempt on the President’s life. But the threat has been there ever since the Supreme Court decided that small arms proliferation is more important than public order. Our democracy hangs on our President’s caution and our Secret Service’s vigilance. A bipartisan White House wouldn’t change that sad fact much.

It’s clear from Huntsman’s post-concession public appearances that he’s positioning himself for something. As a fluent speaker of Mandarin and a former ambassador to China, he’s definitely a long-term thinker.

Maybe he’s positioning himself for a real run in 2016, when his party might have wised up. Maybe he’s jockeying for a position as Secretary of State in the next Obama Administration—for which he would be superbly qualified. (He’s far too smart to think that Mitt has a real chance of winning and appointing him.) But maybe, just maybe, he and the President have something more in mind.

We surely could use a positive surprise like that to shake us out of our lethargy and despond. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Coda: Succession and Selection of Leaders

Xi Jinping’s visit here highlights one respect in which China’s political system beats ours hands down: succession.

Everyone knows right now, in early 2012, that he will assume the top leadership post in China in 2013. We know because he’s been groomed for that job for several years.

By the time Xi gets there he will have served for five years on the nine-member body that makes all key decisions in China. He has experience, political skill, and the apparent support of the top people in China’s government. So when he takes the top job, he will be ready to govern.

Think about that. The benefits for stability, continuity of policy and predictability are obvious. But there’s even more: selection and quality.

China didn’t pick Xi in a mud-wrestling contest judged by an ignorant public and controlled by the most amoral hustlers from Madison Avenue. The pols who really know him picked him—those who have worked with him for decades as he and they rose through a huge party hierarchy.

We don’t know precisely how. Not all the process is written as in our Constitution, and some of it is secret. But we do know one thing: it’s a meritocracy in which competing and cooperating experts pick their best.

Now compare that system with our farce of a Republican primary season. The contrast would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so ominous. China is looking forward to a leader whom the best of a party of 80 million members apparently all respect. We are still suffering a gut-wrenchingly embarrassing process that eliminated the only qualified candidate, Jon Huntsman. In China’s system, the buffoons (including Mitt Romney) who remain wouldn’t even have been in the room where top leaders are picked.

The scene is not much brighter on the Democratic side. We have a good president, probably the best since Jack Kennedy. But it’s four years out from the time he must step down, and neither he nor his party has any visible plan for succession. Is he doesn’t make one soon, we will be looking at an equally gut-wrenchingly embarrassing spectacle on the Democratic side in four years.

In these spectacles, the most ignorant and uninformed part of our public—so-called “independents” or undecided voters—pick our leaders based on utterly irrelevant single issues like abortion, gay marriage, individual gun rights, and legalizing marijuana. They do so inundated by a putrid tide of the most misleading advertising that our professional liars can produce. And the money men (nearly all of them are men) have outlandish influence because they can afford to buy those lying ads. Is there any wonder that our ship of state is sinking?

We can’t change this sorry state through law, because the law has us hog-tied. Our Supreme Court has made corporations people and interpreted our First Amendment as giving them plenary power to propagandize. Fox has no restraints in lying.

But maybe we can change our system by culture and practice. It was pretty good two generations ago, when party elders—not donors—picked the candidates for election to high office, or at least a short list for public scrutiny. We can return to that sort of system without the Supreme Court’s approval because our parties make their own rules.

As I have discussed at greater length, our switch from party succession to direct primaries began our downfall. We can switch back at any time.

Don’t look for getting the money out of politics anytime soon. It’s too deeply entrenched. Our Supreme Court takes decades to admit error (remember Plessey v. Ferguson?), and we don’t have that kind of time. We can change our system to be more like China’s—and more like our own in better times—in four years through our party systems.

Will we do it? I don’t know. But that’s the only potentially effective cure for our national disease that I can see. Expecting some lawyer, judge or law to take the money out of politics is a fool’s dream. We need to put selection by expert peers and intelligent succession back in.

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