OPINION | REX NELSON: Asa’s new role

I wrote a lot about the Democratic Leadership Council when I worked in Washington, D.C., for the Arkansas Democrat in the 1980s. That's because a politically ambitious Arkansas governor thought the DLC could help him reach the White House.

Democrats were deeply troubled following Republican Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in his 1984 re-election campaign. It was "morning in America," and poor Walter Mondale never stood a chance.

The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call later said Democrats "appeared to be on the brink of a permanent excursion into the political wild following Mondale's 49-state drubbing."

Things would get worse before they got better. Remember Michael Dukakis, the liberal from the Northeast, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988? Republican George H.W. Bush had no problem with him.

Moderate Southern Democrats such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Dick Riley of South Carolina believed an organization was needed to move the party back to the center. The DLC found just the right man in Indiana native Al From, who was executive director of the House Democratic Caucus from 1981-85 when it was chaired by Rep. Gillis Long of Louisiana. From led the DLC from its inception in 1985 until 2009.

Clinton said in a 2000 speech, "It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From."

Clinton was the most high-profile chairman in DLC history. I would jokingly call the then-governor the "seventh member of our Arkansas congressional delegation" since he spent so much time in Washington in the late 1980s. I took chartered trains out of Union Station on Capitol Hill to cover DLC conferences at Williamsburg, Va., and Philadelphia. I watched as Clinton held court late into the night at the headquarters hotels, making contacts with party activists and political reporters from across the country.

When the DLC wound down its operations in 2011, Ben Smith wrote in Politico: "Though it was business-friendly and often cast as a corporate tool--or as Jesse Jackson once put it, 'Democrats for the leisure class'--the DLC had at its core an idea, the seed of the international 'third way' movement that produced Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other leaders on the center-left. Indeed, its financial collapse could prove, in a backhanded way, that it wasn't just the tool of monied interests since it is shutting its doors for lack of cash.

"The DLC's raison d'etre, though, become less clear once Democratic moderates had already taken back the party. And after the Clinton years, it picked what many Democrats still see as the wrong fights. In particular, its support for President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq--which most Democrats now view as one of the most profound mistakes of a generation--proved a key break from the emerging consensus of the party."

From served as domestic policy adviser to the Clinton transition following Clinton's election as president in November 1992. USA Today wrote at the time: "The ideas at the crux of the Clinton candidacy were largely drafted by the DLC."

All of this brings us to former Gov. Asa Hutchinson and 2023. Just as Democrats needed someone to bring them back from the brink in the 1980s, Republicans are in desperate need of smart, moderate leadership to save their party from the madness of the Trump era. Whether Hutchinson runs for president or not, there's an important role for him on the national stage. He's just the man to lead a GOP version of the old DLC.

Jonathan Martin, one of the country's most astute political reporters and columnists, wrote in Politico about what's beginning to look like a smaller-than-expected field of 2024 presidential candidates.

In a February column from southern California, Martin wrote: "The last time the Republican National Committee held its winter meeting at the outset of an open presidential race, the state chairs and committee members arrived at the Hotel del Coronado to find three White House hopefuls and then shuttled over to the USS Midway to see a fourth prospect, Mitt Romney, give a speech teasing another run of his own.

"Eight years after that gathering near San Diego, the RNC convened 70 miles up the Pacific at another California resort hotel for its winter meeting. This time, party members were greeted by former President Donald Trump's current top advisers in the lobby and bar, his 2016 campaign manager at their dinner, and, at the check-in table, stacks of the new memoir from Trump's CIA director turned secretary of state Mike Pompeo."

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has since entered the race for the GOP nomination.

"Older figures like former Vice President Mike Pence and Hutchinson have told people they're counting on a front-runner food fight to create an appetite for a so-called adult in the race," Martin wrote. "Where it gets complicated for the would-be third option candidates is when it comes to money. As in: How will they raise it? And this question, as much as Trump's grip or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' strength as an alternative, is what's giving (or what gave) a number of potential candidates pause."

Among those we thought to be candidates a year ago and now aren't: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Martin ended his column this way: "The only likely 2024 contender to show up was Hutchinson, who's a long shot but would bring perhaps the most sterling resume to the field. Now a certified member of the old guard, he was once a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney, House impeachment manager against Clinton and DEA chief and top border official under George W. Bush before serving two terms in Little Rock.

"Hutchinson wasn't in the actual RNC program, but didn't ask to be included. Unlike a number of once-hungry Republicans, he's still intent on testing the 2024 waters--he was the only potential candidate to show up for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' inauguration and legislative breakfast last month. He believes the case has to be made directly against the former president."

Citing a Peggy Noonan column from December that ran in The Wall Street Journal, Hutchinson told Martin: "The only way to get rid of Donald Trump is to beat him."

I can see the measured Hutchinson heading a much-needed Republican version of the DLC. Thoughtful leadership has never been more necessary for a party that's intellectually bankrupt at the national level.

In a recent discussion of the GOP's ailments, conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times said: "Those who led the party, as president (Reagan through the Bushes), members of Congress (Jack Kemp, John McCain, Paul Ryan) or as officials and intellectuals (Richard Darman, Condi Rice), believed in promoting change through the institutions of power. They wanted to shrink and reform government but venerated the Senate and the presidency, and they worked comfortably with people from the think tanks, the press and universities.

"They were liberal internationalists, cosmopolitan, believers in immigration. Then the establishment got discredited (Iraq War, financial crisis, the ossifying of the meritocracy, the widening values gap between metro elites and everybody else). People who were fringe and wackadoodle (Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, CPAC's leaders) were lifted by populist fury.

"Everybody likes the little guy taking on the establishment, but these little guys rode in on a wave of know-nothingism, mendacity, an apocalyptic mindset and authoritarianism. After years of GOP decay, the party collapsed, institutionally and morally, between 2013 and 2016. ... So where does the GOP and the old core of the conservative movement go? Do they (we) become Democrats or a left-wing fringe of Matt Gaetz's clown show?"

In the 1980s, the Democratic Party needed a way back. An Arkansas governor got his party on the right track.

Now, in the 2020s, it's the GOP that must be saved. Could a former Arkansas governor lead the rescue effort?

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.