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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Cheers for the apolitical

by John Brummett | December 30, 2021 at 2:56 a.m.


Asa Hutchinson continues to say a lot of the right things, which tend to be gubernatorial things, which often are apolitical things.

There is a reason for that. Governor is ideally a rather apolitical job. Of course there are divisive social positions any politician must take. But, day to day, the governor's job is to tend close to the ground to efficient operation of schools, roads, police protection and human services largely paid for by federal money.

The federal government has become paralyzed politically by Trumpism on the right and a combination of economic Bernie-ism and cultural wokism on the left. Meanwhile, many states have been blessed by governors of both parties--Hutchinson among them, but Ron DeSantis not--who have run their states well by eschewing incendiary politics and bringing along the opposing party to workable solutions.

I've mentioned before, but will mention again, that I recall Hutchinson telling me--after he'd lost to Mike Beebe and before he would ride the Republican takeover to win the governorship--that he wished his old boss at Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, could be president. That was because Ridge was a former governor of Pennsylvania. Hutchinson said that governors tended to have learned by necessity how to make things work.

Hutchinson has governed in that mold to the extent that he has been able. The largely successful moderate Republican governor of deep-red Maryland, Larry Hogan, has succeeded by working with dominant Democrats. Hutchinson has had harder nuts to crack, working as a reasonable Republican amid the dominance of unreasonable Republicans.

Now Hutchinson is in the national position in which Hogan formerly served. He is chairman of the National Governors Association. That's a group that has been all about bipartisan pragmatism since before Bill Clinton's time as chairman. (Between Hogan and Hutchinson came a less successful Democrat, Andrew Cuomo, to take a turn heading the NGA.)

In his national role, Hutchinson publicly opened a Zoom meeting of governors with President Biden on Monday. He did two things.

First he praised the White House for "depoliticizing [like a governor]" the omicron outbreak. That netted him a little derisive "RINO" chatter on social media.

Then he asked Biden not to let the federal government pose a hindrance to states in their closer-to-the-ground job of fighting this latest virus incarnation.

Biden replied that governors should just tell him what they need. And he said, somewhat remarkably, that this latest pandemic phase will not be defeated by the federal government but by the states.

Hutchinson explained afterward a basic practical lesson that he and other governors had learned in covid's frightful early days in 2020.

Governors were alarmed by the concerns of their public health and hospital officials about being overrun with insufficient space and supplies. Arkansas and other states kept getting put on waiting lists with their orders for personal protective and other medical equipment because the United States government--and the state government of New York in that case--had placed massive higher-priority orders.

Biden is under national political pressure to step up the production and distribution of home tests for the virus. And Hutchinson is wanting him to deal with that without hamstringing the ability of a small-state governor to place and get filled an order for those tests as he faces his own pressure at home.

Sometimes in politics you need to cover your behind. Well, a lot of the time. But some of the nation's governors have reaped sustaining high approval ratings by working to solve problems and trusting that their political behinds will get automatically covered in the final analysis.

It's actually an opportunity for Biden.

Maybe he can't bring Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin together in his own party. Maybe he can't get a single Republican ally to help him pass a voting-rights bill. Maybe that leaves him the no-win option of recklessly undoing the Senate filibuster or outraging the progressive base by not undoing it.

But, provided he really believes that this is the states' virus to fight, this could be time for him to operate as a kind of central governor's facilitator maintaining an ongoing dialogue along the order of what we saw glimpses of Monday.

It may be that omicron, while more contagious, is generally less severe, particularly among vaccinated populations. It may be that we can find an apolitical way to manage it responsibly both in terms of public health and economic activity.

You could cover a lot of political behinds with something like that.

And the looming postscript: Liberal readers decrying my mostly positive words about Hutchinson will have a better perspective when Hutchinson's likeliest successor barges in all Trump-like and DeSantis-like, not to solve but to concoct and exploit problems.

We don't need a governor opening a public dialogue with Biden by saying something about a guy named Brandon.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.



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