Jonathan Bernstein, Tribune News Service
As soon as the indictment of Donald Trump was revealed Thursday, prominent Republicans lashed out against Alvin Bragg, accusing the Manhattan district attorney of bringing a groundless and politically motivated case against the former president.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the leading alternative to Trump in polls so far for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, managed to invoke liberal financier George Soros twice in his 75-word statement claiming that Bragg was weaponizing government to carry out a political agenda. DeSantis also promised to resist Trump’s extradition to New York from Florida, never mind that Trump’s lawyers said the former president would surrender to be arraigned. Other GOP presidential hopefuls expressed similar sentiments. Former Vice President Mike Pence called the indictment “an outrage,” while South Carolina Senator Tim Scott labeled it a “travesty” and accused Bragg of using the law to go after a political enemy.
But one GOP contender, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, took a different tack. Trump, he said, should abandon his pursuit of the Republican nomination in light of the indictment, calling it an unnecessary distraction. Hutchinson is hardly a NeverTrumper; he supported Trump’s presidential bids in both 2016 and 2020. But he became critical of the former president following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and has said in recent weeks that an indictment should disqualify Trump from the presidential race.
Is there room in the Republican Party for this perspective? Other Republicans who have turned sharply against Trump tended to wind up shunned by the party. Former Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney lost her leadership post and then her seat in Congress for her role investigating the Jan. 6 siege.
Hutchinson seems to be searching for a middle ground. Perhaps he has been hearing from conservatives within the Republican Party who are ready to fight back against the anti-democratic impulses like those on display during the Trump era.
What’s far more likely is that Republicans who spoke out against Trump’s indictment reflect where the bulk of influential Republicans are right now and that their views will prevail in the nomination contest, whoever winds up winning.
This has major implications. If Trump or another candidate with anti-democratic tendencies secures the nomination, Republicans will go into the 2024 presidential election with a self-imposed disadvantage. While Trump himself did narrowly manage an Electoral College victory in 2016, he has never been popular, and his hand-picked candidates tend to be even less popular.
But more importantly, it means that when they do win, Republicans will be committed to governing with Trump’s attitudes toward justice and the law in mind. That could mean more attempts to undermine elections. It could mean more partisan uses of pardon power (including, if there are federal charges brought, to clear Trump and his supporters). It could mean the demise of neutral expertise in favor of partisan hackery in the federal government. (1) It certainly would mean even more partisanship — and blind loyalty to the president — as governance priorities.
It might seem to Republicans that attacking Bragg was a free shot that will leave them room to maneuver in the future. But suggesting the indictment never should have happened — without knowing the details of the charges — implies that the former president should be treated as being above the law. That is going to be hard to shake.
As candidates progress during the presidential campaign, the positions they take become the party’s new agenda. Political parties define and redefine themselves in all elections, but presidential races are the most important, and they can sometimes direct the course of a party for years to come.
There is an alternative. Hutchinson isn’t piling on Trump the way some NeverTrump Republicans did from early on. But he is showing how a prominent Republican can be a conservative and still support the rule of law. We’ll see whether anyone joins him. I’m not optimistic.
(1) I continue to defend the US version of government bureaucracy and its heavy use of partisan supervision, with presidents and Congress both having unusually strong abilities to influence the civil service compared with other large democracies. But Trump and his allies seek to dismantle neutral expertise altogether, leaving nothing but partisanship. Bad idea.
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