Brummett: Gov. Asa Hutchinson reflects on time in office, future opportunities

by John Brummett ([email protected]) 1,450 views 

Editor’s note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Asa Hutchinson relaxed in his state Capitol office on a gray December afternoon.

An election outcome in Georgia the night before had given him some company in a place he had staked out nationally. That would be the “non-Trump lane” of contemporary Republicanism.

A Donald Trump recruit had lost another race and, because of that, the Democrats expanded their Senate majority. Republican officeholders nationwide were rushing to say what Hutchinson had been saying for a couple of years, which was that the GOP needed to move beyond Trump.

Hutchinson chatted easily in review of the year 2022, which was good for him as he saw it, and in consideration of the year 2023, which looms curiously or even adventurously for him.

He said that, when he leaves the Governor’s Mansion in early January, he’ll go home to Rogers and open an office to go to each morning and do … something.

He knows he doesn’t want to practice law or lobby. He’s accepting no corporate board offers. He’d like to write a book. He wouldn’t mind giving speeches or doing occasional consulting jobs. Having been a U.S. attorney, congressman, federal assistant secretary of homeland security, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and governor, he ought to be of use as a consultant to somebody on something.

But let’s just cut to it: What he’s apt to do in 2023, at 73, is start a run for the Republican presidential nomination for 2024.

Hutchinson said he came into 2022 with three goals – all of them having to do not with any state program or policy in the last year of his governorship, but with his national political profile.

He was a gubernatorial lame duck. As that, you deal with what comes up. Your big agenda state initiatives are for raising in the first seven years, when political capital and leverage exist. Hutchinson did try to give teachers a big raise in his last year, but Republican legislators wanted to let Sarah Sanders do that. They figured Hutchinson was pushing it mainly for a national political talking point and thought Democrats would get credit if they went along when Asa proposed it.

It indeed was rather remarkable that Hutchinson, the supposed right-wing extremist of the 1980s, ended his governorship in 2022 getting kinder words from many Democrats than many Republicans.

So, Hutchinson enumerated those goals he set for the year. One was to create a nationally focused political action committee. Then he wanted to make two speeches in Iowa, the first caucus state in January 2024 in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, along with two in New Hampshire, the first primary state, and two in South Carolina, the first Southern state in the competition. Then he wanted to organize and conduct a national “ideas summit” in Northwest Arkansas.

He said all those goals were achieved in ways that exceeded his expectations.

The “ideas summit” in September was, he said proudly, “rerun on C-SPAN just last night.” A national columnist said the event established Hutchinson as respected enough to draw national-quality people for a nationally credible conference.

The Iowa speeches went well, Hutchinson thought, connecting him with past acquaintances who might be helpful to him in the caucuses should he compete in them. And he said he’d established a promising dialogue with an Iowa evangelical Christian group that helped another Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, win the caucuses in 2008.

Oddly, Hutchinson had so acquired a centrist label by 2022 that one could be forgiven for forgetting that he once had been such a Religious Right figure that he and his former U.S. Senator-brother Tim got labeled the “Righteous Brothers.”

By the way, what did the Iowa evangelical leaders think of his vetoing the Arkansas bill to ban hormone treatments for transgender children?

Hutchinson says it comes up and that he explains, “Look, do you want the government jumping in the middle of a family and telling them what kind of medication they can and can’t use for the children? But sure – that’s an issue that’s out there. I think there’s going to be a number of big issues, one of them being: Do you take Lindsey Graham’s position on a national ban on abortions? Or do you defend the rights of the states, which we have fought for for 35 years?”

Hutchinson’s position favors states’ discretion over a national ban, which some on the right see as a sell-out that abandons the right of the unborn happening to be unborn in a pro-choice state.

“It’s a very difficult issue,” Hutchinson said. “A very difficult issue.”

Meanwhile, it had not been in Hutchinson’s set of goals to speak at the Reagan Library as part of the “Time for Choosing’ parade of Republican hopefuls for 2024. But it happened the last day of November.

Nor had it been a goal to get invited by the Gridiron Club in Washington to deliver a comedy routine at a traditional dinner. That happened in early December to good reviews for his self-effacement and Trump roasting.

Told that his zingers “read well,” Hutchinson said they were delivered well, too.

An example: He said Trump would be announcing his pronouns soon: me, my and mine. Another: He said he didn’t understand the issue of being “woke,” but that he assumed the product called “Relaxium” that Mike Huckabee touts in commercials was supposed to fix it.

You tend to forget Hutchinson’s confidence and ambition, even his audacity. All are couched in a low-key manner. He speaks self-assuredly without inflection or enthusiasm, which makes his boasting seem less-boastful.

Hutchinson seems to be where he’d wanted to be when he set those goals for 2022.

“But now,” he said, “it’s a big, big step to go to the next level,” meaning a decision to run. And the time draws near to make it.

Hadn’t he positioned himself on the periphery of the race to wait for Trump’s hold on the party to decline, and hadn’t that come to pass?

“Well,” he said, “it’s also increased the activity in the non-Trump lane.” He took some credit for that, recalling that, when he first began his national flirtation, disapproving of Trump regularly on Sunday news shows, “it was just me and [Maryland Gov.] Larry Hogan.”

Now, he said, Nikki Haley is making noises again about running and even Mike Pompeo seems to be angling away from Trump subservience.

But Hutchinson didn’t seem to like any implication that he would have been afraid to run against a strong Trump, and that he had spent the year in a strategic holding pattern waiting for Trump to weaken so that he might run.

“You probably know me better than most,” he said. “The race [in 1984] against [U.S. Sen. Dale] Bumpers was not paved with gold. So [do] you think that if I believe Donald Trump should not be the next president that I’m going to shy away from him?”

It raises an interesting thought. A weakened Trump opens the GOP race for everyone, perhaps to the detriment of the one or two early non-Trump Republican governors brave enough to engage him when he was strong.

In a conversation a decade ago, midway in Beebe’s second term as Hutchinson geared up to try again for governor in 2014 — when he would finally win a statewide race on his fourth try — Hutchinson pondered the then-ongoing positioning of Republican presidential prospects.

He said he liked Tom Ridge not only because Ridge had been his boss at Homeland Security, but because Ridge had been governor of Pennsylvania. He said governors tended to be better equipped for the presidency than members of Congress or other non-governors.

Now that he’s been governor of Arkansas for eight years, what is it about that experience that he believes commends him for the presidency of the United States?

“It’s your leadership,” he said.

A governor, he said, must make executive decisions that cause things to get done that wouldn’t get done without him.

“Let’s look back over the last eight years,” he said. “There’s things that demand your leadership and your political capital and would not happen without me. And you look first of all at computer science. It was my leadership, my gumption to say computer coding in schools is important. But everyone else frowned on it. Whenever you look at the highway plan, that would have never happened without me bringing legislators in developing the plan. We have to market it to the public; it was called the governor’s plan. I had to put my political capital out there.”

Then there was the pandemic, when governors used even extraordinary emergency powers to make decisions about public health and economics. Agree or disagree with decisions, the governors were the ones making them.

“And all that applies as a broad principle to the country.”

He didn’t even mention his three arduous and successful efforts to achieve three-fourths majority legislative votes to save Medicaid expansion.

The interview closed with Hutchinson asked his reaction to a proposed definition for his eight-year governorship. Did he agree that it was defined by his handling of two matters thrust on him – pandemic management and trying to steer a pragmatically conservative course in a time and place where extreme conservatism rose up to make that a challenge?

“I accept that as a general characterization,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story is the first in our “State of the State” series, a look at politics and business heading into 2023.