THE PLAYBOOK: After the primary, run toward the middle.
You can see my real-time debate reactions from last night here
. I wanted to elaborate on one point. The clearest way to see that Asa Hutchinson
is positioning himself as the frontrunner is that he is all-in on triangulating, running in the direction of the Mike Ross
position on the private option, pre-k, the minimum wage, and even to some extent gay marriage.
This appears to have been Hutchinson's strategy all along. Early on, particularly during the primaries, Hutchinson used various forms of procedural hedging and mind-numbing word salad to avoid clear positions that might piss off his base. This was the most stark in the case of the private option. First Hutchinson refused to take a position because of course a gubernatorial candidate would have no position on the most important policy question facing the state in years. Then he said that his position was clear (it was all up to the legislature, see). Then once it was re-authorized, he said "it's the law" so of course he supported it. It was a pilot program. He wants to know how much it will cost. It's working. But we'll wait and see.
What you have here is a man giving just enough thread for the hardcore Tea Party aginners to hold out hope that Asa will come to their side, or at least won't get in the way if the Hell No 26-percent Caucus in the Arkansas General Assembly shuts things down. At the same time, he is signalling to swing voters and private option Republicans and the various powerful interests backing the private option that he can see the writing on the wall and he's on board with continuing the policy. It's a tough trick to pull off, and Hutchinson has done it about as smoothly as could be hoped.
As we get closer and closer to the general election, Hutchinson is inching closer and closer to his left and toward the middle. What's amazing is that the rabid and well-funded Tea Party right in Arkansas has been silent. Support for the Obamacare-funded private option is absolute anathema to them, but activists have been mum even as Hutchinson said the policy was working and might need tweaks, the sort of thing that supporters of the private option
say. Politically, the Ross campaign won't like hearing this (and you'd think policy-wise that the Conduit for Action
crowd would be apoplectic) but Hutchinson plans to continue the Beebe regime when it comes to the private option.
Of course, we know that Arkansas GOP legislators have a gag order
when it comes to criticism of triangulating on the minimum wage. Maybe that extends to other issues as well.
The ugly part of this business is that it begins to appear that the triangulating politician doesn't really stand for anything, is merely positioning himself by following the polls. This is where Ross pounced, pointing out Hutchinson's wishy-washy wobbling on the private option and outright flip-flopping on the minimum wage and pre-k.
"[Hutchinson] was against the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas before he was for it," Ross said. "You know, you’ve got to make decisions, Asa, not based on what public polling tells you, but you’ve got to make decisions from the heart.” Ross said he couldn't figure out whether Hutchinson "sounds more like a slick lawyer or a slick D.C. politician" and this isn't how people talk "at the deer stand."
Ross did pretty well calling Hutchinson out, and Ross certainly sounded more impassioned on these issues. The trouble is, I’m skeptical that people care all that much about politicians being phony. It’s like complaining that linebackers are too violent. Hutchinson calmly and confidently asserted that his position had always been the same — utter sophistry, but plenty of Arkansas politicians have successfully b.s.'d their way through by being Slick. To really know how full of it Hutchinson is, you have to be paying close attention to the campaign, and most voters aren't.
I suppose we should be thankful that Hutchinson is a crass politician who will play to the polls rather than an ideologue from his party's rabid base, because it sure seems like he's in the lead in the race to be the next governor of Arkansas.
p.s. Hutchinson may be inching more and more toward the middle now that the primary is a distant memory, but there's one exception: guns. There is no middle in Arkansas on that issue, apparently.