One of the oddest documents in a very odd political year is the transcript of an interview conducted by NPR last week with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R). He had previously endorsed Mike Huckabee for the Republican presidential nomination and later Marco Rubio, and now he was “without a candidate” and, it seems, without much in the way of political integrity, either. He did not rule out endorsing Donald Trump.
Hutchinson set out his priorities. “Who’s the best person to win in November?” This is apparently different from who would make the best president and, as you can see, more important.
Next came “Who can bring our party together?” Again, never mind the sort of person Trump is, the candidate he’s been and the kind of commander in chief he would make. Hutchinson even noted that Trump had picked up “a lot of momentum” after his recent wins. He did not note, however, that he had picked up any wisdom or, while we’re talking miracles, humility.
To be fair, Hutchinson has his qualms about Trump. He had previously noted Trump’s failings — disagreement over trade policy and, in the words of NPR’s Robert Siegel, “you spoke of temperament, circus atmosphere in the primary, salesmanship in place of serious discussions. Have your concerns about Mr. Trump diminished? Have they grown larger? Have they stayed the same?”
There I was, all ears, as I waited for Hutchinson to summon his inner gag reflex, to say that things had gotten worse, that now there was the threat of violence and the disturbing admission by Trump that when it comes to foreign policy he talks to himself, presumably pacing Mar-a-Lago staring at his own portrait (“to be or not to be . . .” president).
But instead Hutchinson noted how well Trump was doing. It was clear that he did not like Trump. But winning in November, Republican Party unity — these things mattered most of all. Putting an ignorant demagogue in the White House — well, that would somehow take care of itself. An unambiguous statement of revulsion and repudiation and a full-throated denunciation of bigotry were not uttered that evening. Like Trump, I started talking to myself.
Hutchinson is the canary in the Republican mine. Of course he cannot abide Trump, but then he cannot abide getting on the wrong side of the possible nominee, either. Already, you see others inching ever so much closer to Trump, not necessarily endorsing but certainly not condemning. In fact, only one Republican member of the Senate, Ben Sasse (Neb.), has said he will not vote for Trump. I will follow him into battle.
The rest of the Senate is mute, frozen in terror, their spines turning to Jell-O as Trump approaches the number of delegates needed for the nomination. Across Washington and elsewhere, job-famished Republicans — deprived of key positions for the eight years of the Obama presidency — are starting to see some virtue in Trump. Of course, many in the foreign policy arena have in fact denounced him, but Trump has no idea who they are anyway. As we now know, these things can be negotiated.
Some Republicans have already endorsed Trump. Chris Christie, every once in a while the governor of New Jersey, led the parade. He’s either angling for a job in the Trump administration — it is hard to type those two words — maybe attorney general or something to do with bridge closures, or maybe he wanted to get back at Marco Rubio, vengeance and self-regard being Christie’s true passions. Either way, he was rewarded by having to stand behind Trump for what seemed like hours as Trump droned on and Christie looked like a sadly deflating parade balloon of himself.
Govs. Rick Scott of Florida and Paul LePage of Maine have also looked at Trump and have seen a president. So have a former governor (Jan Brewer of Arizona) and a former senator (Scott Brown of Massachusetts) and what looks like the touring cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly.
The Hutchinson text is the document of our times. It lacks moral or even political indignation and has so many implied or stated equivocations that it might have been drafted at the United Nations. Say what you will about Trump; he’s separating the men from the boys. On the radio the other day, you could just hear Hutchinson shrink.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.