The Republican primary field got a little bigger over the weekend as former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson tossed his hat into the ring. Hutchinson made an immediate play for the Trump-skeptical wing of the GOP by calling on Donald Trump to withdraw from the race.
Announcing his candidacy on ABC’s “This Week,” Hutchinson said that he was running because “I believe that I am the right time for America, the right candidate for our country and its future. I’m convinced that people want leaders that appeal to the best of America and not simply appeal to our worst instincts.”
He added that Trump should drop out, saying “the office is more important than any individual person. And so for the sake of the office of the presidency, I do think that’s too much of a sideshow and distraction, and he needs to be able to concentrate on his due process.”
If you aren’t familiar with Asa Hutchinson, you aren’t alone. I mean, he’s no Vivek Ramaswamy (whoever that is), but he’s not exactly a household name either. I’ve heard Hutchinson’s name, but I wouldn’t say I’m familiar with him, his career, or his policy positions.
In my book, Hutchinson’s lack of fame may be a good thing. In today’s GOP, fame is typically reserved for those like Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene who engage in over-the-top, self-serving behavior for the Fox News features. If I don’t know much about Hutchinson but he was still a popular governor who won reelection with a 39-point landslide in a bad year for Republcans, he must be doing something right.
So, as is often the case when I’m not familiar with something, I set out to familiarize myself. Hutchinson was born in Arkansas in 1950 and is currently 72. That makes him slightly younger than both Donald Trump, 76, and Joe Biden, 80. As they might say in Arkansas, however, none of the three is a spring chicken. You could probably guess his approximate age from the name, “Asa.”
Hutchinson earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Bob Jones University in 1972 and a law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1975. In 1982, President Reagan appointed him US Attorney for the western district of Arkansas, making him the youngest US Attorney in the country at 31. At least one anecdote from Hutchinson’s time as US Attorney is notable. He mediated an end to a three-day standoff between law enforcement and a white supremacist group, reportedly donning a flak jacket to do so.
Hutchinson lost races for the US Senate and Arkansas attorney general before being finally elected to the US House in 1996. In the interim, he was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1990 to 1995. While in Congress, he served as one of the House impeachment managers during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton.
When George W. Bush became president, Hutchinson was appointed administrator of the DEA. A short time later, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he was moved to the new Department of Homeland Security as head of the Border and Transportation Security Directorate.
Hutchinson returned to Arkansas in 2006 to run for governor. That year he won the primary but lost the general election. He worked as a consultant afterward and returned to win it all in 2014 and served two terms, leaving office in January 2023.
Hutchinson has a reputation as a popular governor with a strong conservative record. For better or for worse, his record as governor reflects a record of Republican talking points over the past decade or so but is more tempered than that of many of his party. In 2015, Hutchinson was one of the Republican governors who refused to allow the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states and he resumed executions in Arkansas after a 12-year hiatus. In 2019, he signed a bill that would criminalize abortion when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but he has since said that he opposes a federal abortion ban. Hutchinson signed a religious freedom law after having the legislature rewrite the bill to more closely mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, making it more mainstream, and vetoed a bill that would have banned gender transformation surgeries for minors, calling it “a vast government overreach.” The legislature overrode his veto. On COVID, Hutchinson banned vaccine requirements but then praised the Biden Administration for its vaccination efforts and its attempts to "depoliticize" the COVID response. In toto, Hutchinson’s record, while conservative, seems moderate for the current GOP.
One of the most important areas of deviation from the Republican Party line was in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. Hutchinson initially opposed Trump in 2016 but ultimately endorsed him after the primary. Trump returned the favor and endorsed Hutchinson’s reelection campaign in 2018.
After January 6, however, Hutchinson became a vocal critic of The Former Guy. In 2021, Hutchinson accused Trump of dividing the GOP. He later criticized the Republican push to censure and excommunicate Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their participation in the January 6 committee. In 2022, he said that Republicans who believed Trump’s stolen election claims were not fit for office.
In one of the strongest statements that I’ve heard from any Republican, Hutchinson told CNN’s Jake Tapper in January 2022, “We have to one, make sure we show that that [Trump’s behavior] was unacceptable. We have to define it in the right way, it was an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power. And thirdly, we have to make sure we are clear that President Trump did have some responsibility for that.”
And last week, Hutchinson was one of the few Republicans to not offer a knee-jerk attack on Trump’s indictment. In a short statement on Twitter, he called the indictment “a dark day for America.” I was tempted to dismiss the statement as another defense of Trump, but then I finished reading it.
In the end, I thought Hutchinson’s words were apt and well-suited to the situation. It really is a “dark day for America when a former president is indicted.” That doesn’t mean the indictment is a travesty or the justice system has been weaponized. It’s a dark day when a former president does something to get indicted for. Hutchinson’s balanced statement set the right tone in calling for the question to be worked out within the legal system and saying that we need to move on from Trump.
If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time on Trump, it’s because I see Trumpism as the preeminent domestic issue of our time. The choice between Trumpism and traditional candidates, either Republican or Democrat, is literally a choice between a personality cult in which everything is subject to the whims of one man or the constitutional rule of law that we have known for the past 247 years. The most important thing that we can do to preserve our stable democracy is call out and hold Trump accountable for his innumerable bad actions while not electing him or his minions to positions of power.
But I’m also a conservative. I favor limited government and, although I try to avoid culture wars as I said last week (in large part because establishing and maintaining culture is not a constitutional role of government), I don’t like the Democratic positions on a variety of cultural and economic issues. That doesn’t necessarily mean I like the Republican side of the culture wars either. I tend to be toward the small “l,” leave-everybody-alone brand of libertarianism, but Republicans aren’t as in favor of limited government and economic freedom as they were a few years ago either.
I rambled there for a minute to underscore that I’m not fond of either party. As the Republican Party veered not right or left but Trumpward over the past few years, it pushed me toward the Democrats. On the other hand, as Democrats became more extreme, they pushed me in the other direction. I’ve said in the past that Republicans try to make me vote Democrat and Democrats try to make me vote Republican.
I’d like to see good, nontrumpy, traditional conservative option for 2024. The problem with the current and likely GOP contenders is that they’re all way too trumpy. For example, even Trump’s strongest opponents in the primary are more concerned about the fact that Trump may have to face a jury than they are about the underlying bad behavior. If Nikki Haley and Mike Pence can’t acknowledge that Trump likely broke the law, then I can’t trust them to head the country or even the party. Ron DeSantis is untrustworthy on a laundry list of grounds including his hostility to free speech and his tendency to use the government to punish political opponents.
Asa Hutchinson might be a unicorn. The Arkansas governor seems to be a conservative in the traditional Republican model. I won’t say that I agree with everything in his record, but he does have a spine, which is something sadly lacking in most Republicans these days. There aren’t too many Republicans like Hutchinson left in the party. And that’s by design.
That’s why he won’t win the nomination. Today’s Republicans don’t want candidates with a spine. They only want Donald Trump and those who bend the knee to him.
TRUMP CIVIL CASE: I neglected to mention an additional legal woe for Donald Trump last week, but The Former Guy is scheduled to go to court in a civil trial regarding a rape allegation by E. Jean Carroll. The trial is scheduled to being on April 25 and a judge just ruled that the jury will be anonymous.
MY PROSTATE CANCER JOURNEY: The second installment of my prostate cancer blog is now out as well.