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WASHINGTON — Gov. Asa Hutchinson was not widely celebrated throughout 2020 for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Liberals embraced Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose emotional daily briefings turned into a must-watch affair. The right’s hero was Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who resisted lockdowns and other public health measures.
Cuomo has since resigned, felled by a slew of sexual harassment allegations. And DeSantis is presiding over one of the worst outbreaks in the world, fighting schools that want to mandate masks even as the virus rages. That has many questioning whether he, like Cuomo, was subject to a premature coronation.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, is getting praise from the White House for his handling of the pandemic, in particular for his support of mask mandates, which have become anathema to many other GOP governors with presidential ambitions. And instead of grudgingly conceding that COVID-19 vaccines work, Hutchinson spent much of the summer touring the state, holding more than a dozen town halls to promote the shots.
“We’ve lost sight of that sense of community and responsibility to others,” Hutchinson told Yahoo News, criticizing the emphasis on individual freedom that other governors have stressed. “This pandemic has just worn people to a frazzle. And I think we have lost some of that sense of community and responsibility that goes with living in that community.”
Could that kind of conciliatory approach make him a potential 2024 candidate for the Republican presidential primary? He told CNN in February that he would not support Trump, were he to seek the White House again. In April he started a political fundraising group, America Strong and Free, a necessary step toward running for the White House.
The added national attention has clearly encouraged the 70-year-old, who last month became chairman of the National Governors Association. “I hope to be engaged in setting the right tone for our future,” he told Yahoo News. He is already preparing to campaign for candidates across the country in 2022, another move indicating a likely presidential campaign. Hutchinson said that he would like the Oval Office occupied by “someone with the views” he expresses, namely a “commonsense conservatism” and a willingness to “work in a bipartisan way,” a vow similar to the one Biden made and has, to a degree, tried to keep.
“I would like to see that kind of leadership in our country,” Hutchinson says, referring to his own governorship but also not celebrating victory over the coronavirus or the other challenges that Arkansas faces. And he remains a Republican to the core, though the state’s extremely conservative Legislature provides a useful foil, allowing Hutchinson to stake out positions that appeal to moderates.
Earlier this year he vetoed a bill that was widely deemed transphobic for preventing minors who were transitioning from receiving appropriate medical care. “This is too extreme,” he told NPR, arguing that the bill “puts a very vulnerable population in a more difficult position.” And though he did allow a ban on state agencies teaching “critical race theory” — a newfound Republican cause that critics say encompasses any discussion of historical injustice — he said the new law “does not address any problem that exists.”
Like most elected leaders who face a potential election in the near future, Hutchinson (who cannot run for the governorship again in 2022) will be judged by how he will — and has — handled the coronavirus pandemic.
The Delta variant is still causing misery in Arkansas, but it is not nearly as severe there as it has been in Texas and Florida. “It looks like we’re starting to flatten out,” Hutchinson told Yahoo News from his office in Little Rock. “I’m knocking on wood, because this throws us a curveball every time we expect some trend to develop.”
His bluster-free handling of the latest coronavirus surge has raised Hutchinson’s profile at precisely the moment that many moderate Republicans are looking for a leader to rally around. Asked last week by Yahoo News which Republican governors were handling the pandemic well, White House press secretary Jen Psaki named Hutchinson first, along with moderates Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland.
“The vast majority of governors — Republican governors — are doing exactly the right thing,” Psaki said at the time.
Unlike Hogan or Baker, Hutchinson does not govern a blue Northeastern state. Arkansas is very red and very pro-Trump. It is with that seemingly in mind that Biden called Hutchinson last week to praise him for changing his mind on mask mandates. After having signed such a ban into law, he publicly admitted that it was the wrong thing to do. He then moved to compel legislators to amend the ban, but a court struck it down before Hutchinson could do so himself.
“Facts changed dramatically with the Delta variant that came in,” the governor acknowledges in his trademark Ozarks twang. “And as I said, had I known those facts, I would have done it differently. I regretted that decision. And that’s what leaders do: If you have new facts that come to your attention, you’ve got to adjust accordingly.”
Hutchinson says he was surprised that more Republicans did not follow his lead; most, in fact, have only dug in more deeply against masking. Another surprise was that many school districts in Arkansas quickly instituted mask mandates, without much urging. ‘The kids adjust to it,” he says. “They want to get educated.”
Some 900 people had to quarantine in Marion County earlier this month, after 68 cases were detected in its schools. “Since then, they’ve adopted a mask requirement,” Hutchinson says. “That was our first wake-up call” about how difficult it would be to have a “successful school year without masks.”
Florida and Texas are discovering the same truth, with thousands in quarantine in the Sunshine State. Yet DeSantis is fighting with both local educators and the White House over masks in schools. Gov. Greg Abbott, in Texas, is waging a similar crusade, even as he confronts his own coronavirus infection. And at a recent school board meeting about masking in Tennessee, anti-mask protesters hurled abuse at public health officials. Video of the confrontation was so arresting, President Biden felt the need to address it.
Hutchinson says there is nothing conservative in opposing masks, or in universalizing that opposition, as DeSantis and Abbott have done, preaching freedom while micromanaging local governments.
“When you decide to live in a community, there are certain responsibilities that go with that, including regard for other people’s health,” Hutchinson says, articulating what used to be a standard conservative belief before the advent of Trumpism. Another bedrock conservative principle, he says, is that “the government closest to the people governs the best,” meaning that if Little Rock schools want masks, they get to have them.
“I think the most conservative approach, and commonsense approach, is to give local jurisdictions flexibility,” he says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagrees, urging everyone in schools to mask, regardless of setting or vaccination status. Still, with Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson fulminating about how asking children to mask is tantamount to abuse, the mere allowance of flexibility amounts to a radical and downright courageous act on Hutchinson’s part.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Hutchinson says, “One of the most disappointing aspects to the pandemic is the political and cultural divide over masks and the lack of trust of that guidance.”
Like most everyone else, including the president, the governor thought the pandemic was over earlier this summer. Then along came Delta, revealing as the virus so often has done the disconnect between rhetoric and reality, between leaders who can make difficult choices and those unwilling to do so.
Even though masks have returned, Hutchinson promises that there will be no new lockdowns. “We’re wide-open in Arkansas,” he says. “And you see people from all across the country coming to our beautiful state park system, to our rivers and our outdoors.”
The state park system asks that people wear masks indoors. Outdoors, they are free to roam around maskless.
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