OPINION

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Asa thinking on 2024

We have a sighting of Asa Hutchinson, the first since a storm of national conservative talking points wiped out his legacy in Arkansas.

If you'll remember, he left the governorship in January--which now seems so long ago--and said he was setting about deciding whether to run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Over the last two months Arkansas has been turned wholesale into what Hutchinson resisted for eight years--a state run in the image of Donald Trump and happy to push into law right-wing culture-war bills of a type Hutchinson resisted because he thought them bad for business and needlessly distracting from, and dangerous to, a serious policy agenda.

Now, after a brief direct communication with him spurred by his national television appearance Sunday, I'm thinking--and this is against all odds, it seems to me--that he's apt to run for the GOP presidential nomination and announce next month.

Hutchinson's career reflects a certain proclivity for doing what he thinks is right, which, in this case, would be presenting his anti-Trump retro-Reagan conservatism to Republican voters in defiance of conventional wisdom that too many Republican candidates would merely elevate Trump's reliable base to ticket-leading primary pluralities and dreaded inevitability.

Hutchinson was back in a familiar setting on a Sunday morning news talk show. CNN needed a reliable Republican critic of Trump, who'd said easy-to-criticize things the day before to a less-than-capacity crowd at the meeting of the ever-extreme Conservative Political Action Committee.

When Asa was governor, thus possessed of a few active bona fides, CNN had him on screen almost weekly, it seemed, to say that Trump had done something newly offensive and that Republicans needed to look past him for 2024.

Hutchinson told the CNN audience Sunday that he was troubled by Trump's comment at CPAC on Saturday that he can deliver for conservatives their "retribution" against Democrats and establishment Republicans.

"It's troubling," Asa said. "First of all, if you want to heal our land, unite our country together, you don't do it by appealing to the angry mob. And that's true whether you're talking about an angry mob from the left or the right. And when he talks about vengeance, he's talking about his personal vendettas, and that's not healthy for America. It's certainly not healthy for our party."

There was one other hook for Hutchinson's appearance. It was that the pragmatic moderate Republican former governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, whose politics are much like Asa's, had declared himself out of the presidential race. He said he didn't want to be part of any "pileup" of candidates who would serve only to chop up the non-Trump vote.

Hutchinson offered laudatory words for Hogan but said he disagreed with him because 2016 was a different time and the party needed more "voices" against Trump.

Voices and candidates are two different things. But Hutchinson told me Monday that he meant candidates, as many as want to run, because 2024 will be far different from 2016 and no one should preclude a full presentation of possibilities.

"Here is my thinking," Hutchinson wrote Monday morning from Florida in an email: "First, since you can't predict the flow of events over the next 18 months, why reduce the options so early if the candidates have something to offer? Trump would have a lot of time and be able to zero in on each of them. If they are the only candidates and Trump is successful in his campaign early, then what options do GOP voters have if everyone else tries to reduce the field early? There is strength in multiple voices showcasing alternatives in ideas and a combined message that four more years of Trump would be harmful to the nation."

He also mentioned something he'd related to me in December, which was that he saw prospects for support for him among evangelical conservatives who are no longer standing with Trump.

Hutchinson was a Christian conservative before Christian conservatism was quite such a formidable factor in GOP primaries.

But that doesn't consider that Hutchinson, in a later incarnation as Arkansas governor, didn't like fighting the culture war. Do not forget that he vetoed a bill passed in Arkansas to outlaw hormone-therapy treatments for gender dystopian youth by medical professions acting at the behest or approval of willing parents.

To that, Hutchinson wrote in the email Monday, "The choice is between someone who reflects the evangelical faith or someone who is antithetical to their standards in public leadership. I believe they will re-evaluate the support they gave Trump in 2016 and make a different choice. Yes, I can compete for that vote."

At any rate, it was good to hear from Hutchinson and Republican moderation. It took me back to those recent olden days in Arkansas.


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.