Alex Massie

Lessons for 2012 from 1992

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John Huntsman's decision to accept Obama's invitation to serve as the US Ambassador to Beijing is, as James suggested, interesting given the recent rise in Huntsman stock.

The advantages for Obama are several: firstly, and most obviously (if also most grubbily) he removes a potential 2012 opponent from the fray. Secondly, picking someone like Huntsman who not only has diplomatic experience (as ambassador to Singapore and, more importantly, as Deputy US Trade Representative) but also speaks Mandarin tells the Chinese that Obama appreciates their importance and is determined to take their relationship seriously. How could he not, you might ask, and there'd be something in that. But consider that such baubles are generally handed out as rewards to used-car salesmen and real estate agents who've raised millions for the winning presidential candidate. Even if most ambassadorial posts are not what they once were, this remains a grubby habit even if custom decrees it's just the usual way of doing business.

So, it's obviously smart for Obama. But for Huntsman? There's been much talk about how he has concluded that 2012 is not the right time for a Presidential run. And he may be right, given the way the Republican party is behaving these days, to suppose that there's little upside to challenging Obama in 2012 and that it's much more sensible to wait until 2016.

That presumes, of course, that Obama will win a second term. At the moment, for what little it is worth, you would bet that he will. But once upon a time George HW Bush seemed destined to win a second term too. So destined in fact that leading Democrats such as Mario Cuomo and others decided that, post Operation Desert Storm, there was no point in challenging Bush. That opened the door to William Jefferson Clinton whose triumph would once have seemed almost as improbable as a GOP victory in 2012 currently does.

History rarely repeats itself exactly, of course, but 1992 is a reminder - merely a reminder - that even causes that seem hopeless can be turned around. Sometimes. Even so, it's worth recalling that Clinton was at the vanguard of the New Democrat movement and that, by daring to fight and win in the south, he represented a broadening, not a narrowing, of the party's appeal that attempted to move beyond its traditional coalition of interest groups and minorities. In other words, Clinton was a reformer who also had the advantage of running at a time when the opposition had been in power for 12, not merely 4, years.

Even then, despite his political skills, Clinton needed major assistance from Ross Perot and Bush himself. And the economy, of course. So, sure, there can be upset victories but they're not reliable guides to future elections, especially since if there's a serious third-party candidate in 2012 he's much more likely to draw votes from the GOP than the Democrats.

Nonetheless, Huntsman's decision to go to China is a set-back for the GOP, making it a little more likely that it will remain the Party of Limbaugh and not, therefore, at a national level, a serious proposition. Plus, you know, they need to find someone with political ability comparable to a Clinton or a Reagan or an Obama...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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