Political pundits are mentioning Gov. Asa Hutchinson with more regularity as a presidential candidate in 2024.
Arkansas’ term-limited Republican governor is playing coy about a possible run for the White House. Still, he sounded like a candidate whose national aspirations are coming into focus during an appearance Thursday (May 12) in Bentonville.
Hutchinson and Louisiana Gov. John Bell Edwards, a Democrat, answered a handful of questions from Steuart Walton during one of the final sessions of the Heartland Summit.
The two-day event, an invitation-only gathering, convened Wednesday. It is the signature event of Heartland Forward in Bentonville. Heartland Forward formally launched in the fall of 2019 — one year after the Heartland Summit’s first iteration — and is spearheaded by members of the Walton family and led by former Walton Fellow and Milken Institute Chief Research Officer Ross DeVol. It is the first U.S. think tank focused exclusively on the economic situation of the Heartland region.
Organizers say their goal is to promote action by convening people playing a role in the success stories of thriving areas of America’s heartland.
Hutchinson said after the session that a possible White House run remains undetermined. He did acknowledge concern about “what is happening nationally” and the country’s direction.
“I have an opportunity to be a national voice for common-sense conservatism,” he told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “I can be instrumental in making sure that the debate is shaped in the right way. It’s about our future and not our past. I want to be a problem solver and not a chaos creator. I think that’s important for our leaders.
“So we’ll see where that leads. I want to finish strong as governor, and I’m going to be fully focused on my responsibilities here. But we’re also going to be testing the waters where that could lead nationally.”
In several breakout sessions scheduled Thursday at various venues throughout Bentonville, summit attendees discussed strategies on multiple topics and shared insights on advancing the heartland.
In a candid, sometimes humorous, conversation at the event venue Record in downtown Bentonville, Hutchinson and Edwards offered their insights for about 30 minutes on a handful of topics including bipartisanship and partisan divides.
“What you see as a governor, and also in our country, is that most issues don’t boil down to a partisan divide,” Hutchinson said. “I [promote] computer science. Computer science and education are not partisan divisions. We ought to be working together on that.”
Hutchinson, chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association, also lamented the loss of human interaction with the people you work with every day. He noted the discontinuation of bipartisan social gatherings in Congress.
“Whenever you get to know somebody on the other side, you’re just a little more hesitant about attacking them personally,” he said. “And that’s really important that we understand. That translates to how we interact with each other as human beings. I’m talking about social media. People are a little harsher when they have anonymity.”
Hutchinson also referenced Dr. Cornel West, the American philosopher and political activist, and his perspective on tribalism.
“I am a two-party guy,” Hutchinson said. “I’m a partisan. I campaign for my side of the fence, you [Edwards] campaign for your side of the fence. When it’s over, we work together.
“But I am not a tribalist. Cornell West made the point that we are all part of a tribe. But if you never disagree with your tribe, you become a tribalist. And if you are a tribalist, then soon you are an ideologue. And if you are an ideologue, you will soon be a demagogue.
“From time to time, you have to disagree with your tribe. And you have to have an honest evaluation about where your principles are, or your party is going to help shape that.”
Louisiana voters elected Edwards in 2015, then re-elected him in 2019. He is the only statewide elected Democratic official in Louisiana.
Edwards said his philosophy is to be an American first and last to work across the aisle.
“I can be a Democrat in between that,” he said. “After the campaigning and election are over, we need to work with and pull for whoever is in the majority [party]. Whoever is in the administration. That will determine if we, collectively, are successful. If the first thing you do is try to set the stage for a successful election for your party down the line in two years or four years, we are not getting things done. We are not solving the problems of our people or positioning our country strategically.”
Edwards acknowledged that thinking is easier said than done. He related a telephone call he received from President Donald Trump — a vocal critic — in 2019 after he had won re-election.
“He came down to Louisiana three times to campaign against me,” Edwards recalled. “Said some pretty nasty things. I don’t necessarily like the labels, but I am known as the most conservative Democratic governor in the country. But to hear [Trump], I’m a Communist, gun-taking, third-trimester abortionist.”
A few days after the election was over, Edwards said Trump called him to offer congratulations.
“Mr. President, thank you for the call,” Edwards responded. “I said during the campaign I was going to win, and when I did, it would be time to govern. And today’s time to govern.”
That was the mature response, but Edwards also said it was the best approach for his constituents. The following year, three hurricanes made landfall in Louisiana. Edwards said he spoke with Trump about federal assistance for the state every couple of weeks.
“I could have given into that human temptation to give it back to him when he called me [to offer congratulations],” Edwards said. “That would have been the worst thing for my state.”
After a pause, Edwards delivered a line that drew the loudest laugh.
“Not that I wasn’t thinking it,” he said. “But as an adult and as a public servant, you have to have a filter between your brain and your mouth. And I was successful on that day at least.”
Walton, the grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton and a co-founder of Bentonville holding company Runway Group, went off-script with one question for both governors. He asked if they thought it was a good idea for billionaire Elon Musk, who is nearing a deal to buy Twitter, to allow Trump back on the social media platform.
Following the January 6 Capitol Riot in 2021, Twitter permanently suspended Trump for violating its rules against violence incitement. Twitter has said the decision was made by co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey.
Musk said that he would reverse that decision.
“We’ll see whether that’s good or bad,” Hutchinson said. “He very well could be blasting away at me. I recognize the consequences of that. I don’t have any problem if he goes back on there. I do have issues if they put a jihadist on there showing executions. There have to be limits on these social media platforms, and the private sector has rules. I’d rather the private sector set those rules than the government.
“But they do have a responsibility. Those are private-sector decisions. He [Musk] may or may not make the best decisions there. But if he doesn’t, it’s going to drive people off, there’s going to be a competitor, and that’s the most important policy point. We have to have competition in these platforms that are available to the public.”
As Edwards alluded to, he was a frequent target of Trump’s tweets during his 2019 gubernatorial campaign.
“His 80 million [followers] received all sorts of positive information about me,” he joked. “At the end of the day, many people don’t understand this, partly because people misrepresent the facts. That [Twitter] is a private sector platform. It is not government-related, and therefore there is no First Amendment implication. So [Trump] doesn’t have a First Amendment [right] to be on Twitter.
“If he gets back on Twitter, I hope the people hold him more accountable for utter falsehoods and the nastiness that comes from his tweets. As well as from his mouth.”