I want to emphasize that I have absolutely no reporting to back up the following notion -- quite the contrary, in fact. This is pure speculation, of the "what-if," "gee that would make sense" variety of idle thought.
So here it is: Deval Patrick, US Ambassador to China.
A savvy pundit put it into my head a couple of weeks ago -- again, with no personal knowledge or information -- and it makes so much sense I can't shake it off.
I have checked around with several plugged-in China experts, and they all said, in essence: I haven't heard his name come up, but it's possible he's being considered, and it certainly would make sense.
On Friday, Foreign Policy's Laura Rozen blogged about the still-open appointment. Rozen reports that Chuck Hagel and John Podesta are among "several people" who have "turned the job down."
I have a suspicion that Patrick was one of those "several." And if he is, I bet the Obama team has, or will, come back to push him a little harder to say yes.
Patrick is just too perfect for the job to not be on the list of candidates. From people I've spoken with, and what I've read, here are the main things Obama figures to be looking for:
--A close connection to Obama. Because of the critical importance of the position, and the nature of China's governmental leaders, the Ambassador should have a known personal relationship with the President. Rozen cited "Beijing's interest in hosting an ambassador thought to have the all-important presidential ear," and quotes a source emphasizing "a special relationship with the president." Patrick has it.
--Business expertise. The relationship with China will involve business negotiations as much as, if not more than, military ones. This is one reason why former Goldman Sachs president John L. Thornton, rather than an experienced diplomat, was once considered the likely appointee. (Not so much now -- we won't be seeing Goldman Sachs on many appointee resumes for a while.) Patrick, formerly of Texaco and Coca-Cola, and veteran of corporate boards of directors, has that experience.
--China experience. Not Patrick's strong suit, compared to others, but he spent time in China for Coca-Cola, and led a successful trade mission there as governor.
--Personal wealth. Ambassadors need to entertain and shmooze, nowhere moreso than China, with its vast, dispersed layers of governmental and business bureaucracy. The US government can't afford to pay for it, and (as Ray Flynn discovered) pols can't use their campaign war chests for it. Patrick is not up there with the super-duper wealthy, but has enough to lead a lifestyle condusive to success in the post.
--Civil rights credibility. Obama clearly does not intend to push China hard on civil rights. But, for exactly that reason, the left will give any business-oriented nominee a hard time during confirmation. Patrick, who was Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under Clinton, and who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, is unimpeachable on the issue.
--Confirmability. The Obama team doesn't need any high-profile confirmation fights. Patrick should be a breeze.
--Amenable family situation. People with grade-school-age children don't usually up and relocate to Beijing. The Patricks have two daughters, both of whom are now in college. I suspect they would prefer to live in the same hemisphere as their children, but the move would be much easier than it would have been just a couple of years ago.