There is no such thing as a perfect politician, but as we ponder the possibility of rerunning the 2020 election between two decidedly flawed candidates, it’s worth considering what an ideal Republican candidate might look like for 2024.
Let’s start with the obvious: someone who is a reliable and unflinching conservative, unafraid to aggressively take on the left. You would also want a candidate with governing experience—such as, say, a hugely successful two-term governor. While we’re at it, how about someone who spent significant time in the executive branch—like overseeing the Drug Enforcement Administration and serving as an undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security? And then throw in stints as a U.S. attorney and U.S. congressman, along with practical experience like chairing the National Governors Association, a powerful nonpartisan organization that helps our federalist style of government work smoothly.
Last—but definitely not least—you would want a candidate who has forcefully opposed the worst aspects of Donald Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party throughout the last eight years.
Luckily, such a candidate need not be built from scratch but already exists in Asa Hutchinson, whose vast—and vigorously conservative—legislative, administrative, and governing experience, combined with his steadfast refusal to go along with the GOP’s troubling descent into Trumpian sycophancy, sets him apart in a field replete with candidates who may have one or the other of these attributes, but not both. Think of someone who possesses the virtues of Mike Pence and Chris Sununu without the vices, such as Pence’s decision to enable the Trumpian hijacking of the Republican Party and Sununu’s lack of conservative bona fides.
Hutchinson officially announced his 2024 candidacy for president on Wednesday, recalling a journey that began with his (unsuccessful) 1986 Senate bid:
“I ran as a conservative Republican when being a Republican was like having a career-ending handicap. … I continued to fight the establishment, and over time … guess what? We won. That was the beginning, and since then I’ve been a consistent conservative through my time as leader of the party in the United States Congress, and as governor. And now, I bring that same vigor to a fight in another battle, and that battle is for the future of our country, and the soul of our party.”
Realistically, the odds are not in Hutchinson’s favor in the GOP primary. Like other Trump challengers not named DeSantis, he’s polling in the low single-digits. But the American electorate is aching for a serious challenger to Joe Biden. Hutchinson has much to offer the millions of voters who are not in thrall to the charms of Donald Trump.
Let’s start with his résumé. In many ways, Hutchinson is perfectly suited to take on Joe Biden, the inevitable Democratic nominee. He has experience across all three branches of government and at both the state and federal level. Hutchinson significantly increased his margin of victory both times he ran for reelection—as a congressman in 1998 and as governor of Arkansas in 2018. That shows his capacity to appeal to the broad swath of moderate Democrats, centrists, and conservatives permanently disaffected with Donald Trump’s—and, by proxy, Ron DeSantis’—style of governing.
Hutchinson, who is a full two-term presidency’s worth of years younger than Biden, is able to boast of his genuinely vast experience (unlike younger candidates) while remaining energetically and lucidly capable of carrying out the unrelenting responsibilities of the highest office in the land (unlike his prospective competitors).
In a time of financial uncertainty after emerging from a pandemic, America is looking for a leader who can stabilize the economy while vigorously enabling the dynamism that has made this country great. As Arkansas governor, Hutchinson managed the holy grail of conservative economics, doggedly insisting on tax cuts while actually making his state money.
On the issues? Hutchinson signed strong anti-abortion legislation, though he’s said that he regrets not building into the law an exception to rape and incest. That tells us two things: He’s far closer to where Americans are on abortion than some of the most restrictive ballot and policy initiatives Republicans have recently put out, and he’s willing to acknowledge when he feels he’s made a mistake. On transgender issues, he’s taken heat for vetoing legislation that banned gender-affirming health care (including puberty blockers and other non-surgical treatment) for minors. But he was clear that his veto—which was overridden by the Arkansas legislature—came from his belief that the legislation went too far, not a disagreement with the broader conservative view on gender identity. Had the legislation focused on surgery alone, he says he would’ve signed it.
I was personally disappointed by Hutchinson’s insistence on work requirements for Medicaid eligibility, which led to nearly 18,000 of his constituents losing health care before the measure was halted by a federal judge, but conservatives by and large approve of conditions like this.
Hutchinson represents a rebuke to America First isolationism without the freewheeling irresponsibility of unconstrained neoconservatism. His stance on the importance of Ukraine owes in part to his view that we should help our friends and allies but also to his view that Russia represents a major geopolitical threat and cannot have its aggressions go unchecked. What this suggests is that, as president, he wouldn’t make the mistakes of past Republicans in thinking that almost every issue around the world deserves some sort of American response, but neither would he turn a blind eye to a major rival’s expansionary yearnings. In his announcement on Wednesday, Hutchinson said of Ukraine: “ Isolationism only leads to weakness and weakness leads to war. Americans want peace and the best way to secure and preserve peace is to have the most prepared military in the world. Today’s threat is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I join with those who say we do not want an unending war in Ukraine, and the best way to avoid a long war is to help Ukraine win today.”
Hutchinson is a competent, experienced evangelical Christian who wants what nearly every conservative wants, minus the country-degrading acids of Trumpism. Conservatives who ignore that the party’s MAGA-centric vision led to undeniable electoral underperformance across three consecutive cycles—2018, 2020, and 2022—and opt for more of the same when there is a viable alternative are doing the movement, and the country, a huge disservice.
In a sane world, Hutchinson could beat Biden, but unless conservatives part ways with Trump’s baseless electoral conspiracies, his insurrectionary incitement, his incapacity to restrain himself from committing impeachable offenses, and his limitless boorishness, Joe Biden will still be president come January 21, 2025.