Imagine this: President Barack Obama appoints recently declared Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman secretary of state before the first GOP primary votes are cast, while inviting his adversary-turned-confidante and chief U.S. diplomat Hillary Clinton to join next year's Democratic presidential ticket. Meanwhile, Vice President Joseph Biden gracefully retires to forge a presidential future for the State Department's head honcho. • This scenario may seem improbable. And yet, however counterintuitive at first glance, the Biden-Clinton-Huntsman exchange would be both logical and good for the nation's future. • First, it may be just what each player wants: Obama, a win in 2012 harkening back to his '08 theme of unity; Huntsman, more political responsibility; Clinton, a path to the presidency; and Biden, a departure from fast-paced political life — for the good of his party.
To see this as remotely possible, we need to reawaken presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who heralded a new kind of unifying politics. On the campaign trail, he constantly cited Lincoln's Team of Rivals, after which he pledged to model his own Cabinet.
Obama promised a bipartisan leadership, but he has yet to offer it. Huntsman could fill a Republican vacuum left by the recent departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was one of two conservatives in Cabinet posts. He would be entrusting a Republican with an office as well as a portfolio far more expansive and with more impact than his previous one.
Let's discuss the actors involved, starting with Clinton, who has insisted she will depart public service altogether after her one-term stint in Obama's diplomatic HQ.
Clinton, a would-be president who has placated her critics and only earned plaudits as a skilled stateswoman (rather than as the spouse of a skilled statesman), could seamlessly unify the party in '12 and '16. Between her loyal '08 supporters and Obama voters now experiencing Obama — not Clinton — fatigue, she may be the winning card for the president.
Remember, Clinton campaigned vigorously for Obama after their bitter primary clash. There is perhaps no Democrat, or politician anywhere, better suited to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Now, with Clinton in the VP slot, Foggy Bottom is uninhabited. In offering Huntsman the State post, Obama would be promoting a Republican — and a bona fide world-class diplomat — to a position for which he is duly qualified, and sidelining his most credible general-election opponent.
Why would Huntsman accept the terms of an arrangement that would intensify his association with the chief executive he is campaigning to defeat? Wouldn't being Obama's lead envoy make him doubly toxic with red-meat-hungry GOP primary voters?
Perhaps. But we can't assume he wants to be president any more than he might want to be at the helm of American diplomacy. Primary candidates frequently launch presidential bids to establish their credentials for posts other than those in their ex-competitor's soon-to-be-formed Cabinet. And if Huntsman's career trajectory suggests anything, it's a desire to influence American foreign policy.
Most important, Huntsman has the stuff of which secretaries of state are made.
Until his resignation as U.S. ambassador to China, he was probably the senior government official with the deepest knowledge of Asian culture and language. He has crafted and negotiated bilateral or multilateral trade agreements with some two dozen nations across three continents in various diplomatic gigs. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Huntsman is distinctively poised to oversee relations with China, the powerhouse nation that many consider, after America, most central to the planet's welfare (be it confronting North Korea's nuclear threat or creating a more robust economic future).
In order for this swap to work, the current vice president would have to deal, too.
Yes, Biden has assumed a crucial role in shaping the nation's foreign policy. But a party elder admired for his behind-the-scenes savvy — as opposed to his sometimes buffoon-like public image — Biden, who would be 71 entering the Oval Office in 2016, realizes the importance of Democratic succession. He is an uncertain candidate against whom fresher Democratic blood might contest the nomination.
On the other hand, there is one candidate who would ignite a shock wave through the party as well as the general electorate amid continued sour economic news — and quite possibly galvanize the Democrats to victory in 2012 and again in another four years: Hillary Clinton.
Whatever the implausibility of this grand shake-up, a Hillary Clinton vice presidency (and possible future presidency) and a Jon Huntsman State Department would make sense for the country.
If orchestrated, the proposed swap would be a stroke of riskiness for the Democrats — but quite possibly genius as well.
Alexander Heffner, a senior at Harvard, has written for the Boston Globe, Newsday and RealClearPolitics.