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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Presidential dreamin'

by John Brummett | February 25, 2021 at 3:48 a.m.

Decades ago, I thought no one from Arkansas could be elected president. Now I'm beginning to think that anyone from Arkansas might.

The thought as late as the 1980s was that Arkansas was too inconsequentially small and backward to provide a credible training ground for a nationally competitive politician. An irascible old senator or congressman from the state might achieve legislative power, but no nationally electable politician seemed likely to come from the Arkansas defined by 1957.

It turned out that talent could come from anywhere.

Dale Bumpers threatened to test the old thinking and was taken seriously on a national level before deciding against it. Then Bill Clinton disproved it.

I thought at the time that Clinton surely couldn't be the best the Democrats could do. But he plainly was, especially in the retail politics of New Hampshire. He in fact proved himself the best American politician of a generation.

Then Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Republican caucuses, making retail political talent the leading export of a place called Hope.

Now Tom Cotton, absence of personality aside, is a serious prospect for the Republican presidential race in 2024. He's among maybe a half-dozen contenders for the Trump base should the madman relinquish it.

The retail talent that Cotton lacks matters less now than scowling and base-appealing extremism, which he offers.

And Asa Hutchinson is lately on CNN as frequently as Cotton is on Fox. Our term-limited governor, who has no apparent place left to go in Arkansas politics after 2022, is telling cable-show hosts about the need for a national Republican path forward independent of Trump, or at least broader than the cultish obsession.

He told CNN he wouldn't vote for Trump if he ran in 2024, which is not something a man needing to win office in Arkansas would dare say.

But it is in fact something a man looking for a national political path might say.

Cotton versus Asa while the nation watches ... perhaps I'd shouldn't get carried away.

Cotton clearly runs hard for president, using his ancestry in Dardanelle to use Arkansas as a handy vehicle. He could do what he's doing from anywhere, so long as he visibly detested liberals and had gone to Harvard and into the Army.

Hutchinson strikes me as harboring national interest more vaguely, mostly so that he can participate in the national political conversation in case some opportunity might arise for him.

He is, after all, a Southern Trump-resistant Republican governor with a long and varied resume offering state, congressional and executive-branch experience. That might be useful if somebody needed a Cabinet member, a Homeland Security secretary or attorney general, or maybe even a running mate.

But a confirmed politician never says never to anything--even a presidential run, I suppose--in such a fluid environment.

I recall Hutchinson telling me a decade ago--as he contemplated one more try at governor, meaning the one he'd win--that he much favored governors for presidents. He liked that they'd had to keep government running. He was high at the time on Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor to whom he had been a deputy secretary at Homeland Security.

Not only is Hutchinson now a pragmatic second-term governor himself, but he will ascend later this year to the chairmanship of the National Governors Association. That's no springboard to the presidency, but it is a ticket to an occasional invitation into the national political conversation.

And Hutchinson is, by modern definition, indeed by his own declaration, a moderate Republican. There are still some of those left. They need champions, and Mitt Romney and Susan Collins might not suffice.

Hutchinson also probably benefits lately from the national news made by his nephew.

Jim Hendren has bolted from the Republican Party to become an independent because of his distress over the Trumpian cult of celebrity and the decline of civility and problem-solving in the party.

Twice in the past several days, Hutchinson has been on CNN in part to discuss his nephew.

Twice he has said he is saddened by Hendren's decision, yet understanding of his reasoning, but convinced for his own part to stay in the party of his lifetime to work from within on pragmatism and civility.

There might be a little national Republican currency in being the uncle who stayed to rebuild post-Trump rather than the nephew who jumped ship.

Finally, this topic shouldn't be dispensed with absent mention of a new poll of Republican presidential prospects for 2024. It shows Donald Trump at 53 percent, Cotton at 1 percent, and Hutchinson not even honorably mentioned.

Perhaps it's early.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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