Will Gov. Asa Hutchinson run for president?
Roby Brock, the owner-publisher-editor of Talk Business and Politics, the website and television program, is perhaps overly modest about his scoop of last weekend. Aw shucks, he said, he was in the right place at the right time with the right question. More than one good question, in fact, including the one his subject, Gov. Hutchinson, pointedly refused to answer: Is he now, will he become, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024? His response, not surprisingly, was less than Sherman-esque.
“We’re going to see how this all plays out,” Hutchinson smiled.
(Probably not smiling: Sen. Tom Cotton, whose presidential campaign announcement seems but a formality.)
“This all” – there’s a lot there, including the governor’s revelation that he is preparing what he terms a national leadership effort called "America Strong and Free." And, yes, it will have a political action committee (PAC) along with “an educational branch ... that will help raise money, educate people on the principles and issues.”
Hutchinson would be 74 on Jan. 20, 2025. A spring chicken. But first comes the midterm congressional elections, the next chance for the Republican Party to recapture the Senate, or the House, or both. The governor will be in the final months of his term-limited tenure, with the last legislative session of his administration in the rearview mirror. So, he says, 2022 will be “a very, very important year for our country and for our party, and I want to be engaged in that debate.”
The private sector would be rewarding, the governor noted, “But I am concerned about what the future holds under the Biden administration. We're spending too much money. We're over-regulating.” Fairly gentle GOP commentary by today’s standards. But Hutchinson kept going. He did not flatly declare that the immediate past president was a colossal fraud and spectacularly unqualified for elective office, nor express any regret (Brock did not ask him to) for having endorsed him at the 2016 Republican National Convention. (He did, some days ago, fault Trump for his shameful and dangerous post-defeat performance, which the earl of Mar-a-Lago repaid by terming Hutchinson a RINO – Republican in Name Only). Implying that he believed bombast and bluster had had their day – something of a gamble – “I think it's important for me to be a balanced voice ... shaping our party in a good way in 2022.”
As if to invite another barb from Palm Beach, the governor allowed that he did not consider Trump the titular head of the party. Trump “has the largest megaphone now just because he has such an enormous following,” Hutchinson said. “So he's certainly a player ... but there's many voices in the party.”
GOP congressional leaders, of course, and, well, governors.
Call it Hutchinson’s political declaration of independence. It is not without risk, whatever his plans for his “leadership effort,” its PAC and himself. Republicans in Washington or the statehouses who have proved themselves willing to incur Trump’s wrath are few, and most of them have faced retribution from congressional colleagues or home state party organizations. And what, if anything, will his petition for distance mean for Hutchinson in the general assembly? While its work this year is substantially done, it remains a legislature well to the right of the him and which, to his annoyance, has repeatedly demonstrated an eagerness to engage in constitutional tomfoolery over gun rights and to legislate morality in one after another bill involving abortion, transgenderism and sex education. It is a legislature elected by a state that twice overwhelmingly elected Trump, the second time by an even larger margin. And it was Trump whose policies on trade and tariffs, immigration and coronavirus drove Hutchinson to just this side of despair, though his criticisms of Trump were limited to “frustrating” and “disappointing” until the latter tried to overturn the November election and helped trigger the appalling events of Jan. 6.
Obviously it is not, certainly not only, his native Arkansas and its GOP establishment that Hutchinson is seeking to moderate. (That mission, a highly problematic one, has been shouldered by his nephew and fellow pragmatist, Sen. Jim Hendren, who weeks ago renounced his Republican Party membership for independent status while simultaneously announcing his own PAC.) For months the governor has been a fixture on the Sunday morning news interview programs, speaking for that brand of conservatism once commonly described as "main street republicanism." Can that strain be revived? Can his own personal political future be energized? Or will Trumpism continue to dominate the right side of the American political spectrum?
As Hutchinson would put it, we’ll see how it plays out.