WASHINGTON — The road from Maryland’s statehouse to the nation’s capital is a relatively short 30 miles, but for all the difference between Annapolis and Washington, the two cities could be 30 light-years away. Maryland is routinely deemed one of the nation’s better-governed states, its social safety net earning praise for protecting citizens during the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Washington has passed from partisan division to an even more advanced stage of political combat, in which progressives are fighting Democrats, conservatives are fighting Republicans and President Trump sends everyone into disarray.
On Monday, Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, arrived in Washington with a simple message: There is another way. Arguing in a speech before the Ronald Reagan Institute that this is a nation of “civility and pragmatism,” he observed that “most of us are sick and tired of all the drama.”
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Some expect that message will be the bedrock of Hogan’s bid for the White House. That he was speaking at an institute named for another beloved Republican governor, one who offered hope to a nation worn down by scandal and dysfunction, was not lost on anyone. That follows Hogan having voted for Reagan in the just-concluded presidential election, thus deftly rejecting Trump but not the Republican Party.
The question is whether Hogan’s old-fashioned, low-heat conservatism can appeal to a party that remains in the thrall of Donald Trump and his brand of inflammatory populist politics.
The 64-year-old second-termer plainly thinks so. “The vast majority of Americans are moderate,” said Hogan, who has the gruff but pleasant demeanor of a particularly capable electrical contractor. Before coming to politics he was, like the current occupant of the White House, a private developer. Politics, though, is a family trade: Hogan’s father, the late Rep. Larry Hogan Sr., was the only Republican to fully endorse the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
The elder Hogan’s courage probably cost him the very governorship his son occupies today; Gov. Hogan is clearly informed by his father’s legacy in his own steadfast opposition to Trump. His second term in Annapolis ends in January 2023, just in time to begin fundraising for a potential presidential run.
He declined such a run this time around, despite the urging of some Republicans. But challenging a “sitting incumbent president” would have been folly, he told Yahoo News after his speech, whereas “competing with 15, 20 other guys” could prove a much easier lift, especially if some of those guys — and this part went unsaid — have engaged in Trumpian partisan combat for the past four years, with intentions to keep doing the same throughout the Biden presidency.
Some are skeptical, given the attention Trump will likely command for the next four years. “He will probably try, but I don’t think there is any market for Reagan’s philosophy or style of governance in today’s Republican Party,” said Bruce Bartlett, who served as a top Reagan adviser. “Reagan himself would be too far left to be a Republican these days.”
Liz Mair, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, said Hogan’s chances in 2024 would be “very slim” because of his support for legal abortion. That position, Mair told Yahoo News, is “a nonstarter with too many base Republicans. The party has not nominated someone for decades who self-describes as pro-choice, and pro-life conversions are very difficult to execute without a candidate really making themselves look inauthentic and like a pandering flip-flopper lacking in principles.”
Should he choose to run, Hogan would likely reject overtures to the GOP base, instead focusing on moderate suburban Republicans and, where possible, independents uninterested in culture-war issues. He is one of the few national Republicans who can credibly claim the middle ground without coming across like an ideological carpetbagger. Earlier this year, Hogan had an astonishing 82 percent approval rating for his pandemic response — from the state’s Democrats, the same ones who have consistently voted blue in presidential and senatorial elections.
Maryland has a single Republican in its congressional delegation. The statehouse is as blue as the Chesapeake Bay, which is a little bit bluer thanks to Hogan’s efforts. He has opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. He has also protected the Affordable Care Act, which many of his Republican colleagues strenuously oppose. And he has pushed for the kind of infrastructure spending that Trump promised but never accomplished, an endless succession of “infrastructure weeks” notwithstanding.
That isn’t to say that Hogan is going to be party switching anytime soon. He has feuded with labor unions and taken other positions in line with the Republican Party. “Larry Hogan is no moderate,” went the headline of one Washington Post op-ed in 2018. It enumerated several conservative stances the governor had taken, including his 2015 opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in Maryland.
It didn’t seem to matter much. Several days later, Hogan won reelection, besting Democratic challenger Ben Jealous, the former NAACP leader, by 12 points. Two years before that, Trump had lost the state by nearly 30 points to Hillary Clinton. That makes Maryland a preserve of the kinds of centrist voters Hogan would need to persuade in 2024.
To conservatives in thrall to Trump’s rallies, Hogan would note that millions more voted for Joe Biden. “You don’t get to govern if you don’t win the election,” he said on Monday. As far as he is concerned, a signed bill is far more valuable than a sea of MAGA hats, especially at a time of acute national crisis.
The Reagan Institute, where Hogan made his remarks, is about a block from the White House. But whereas Reagan promised an ideological revival, Hogan evokes a vision of nonideological pragmatism. Warning of a “crumbling vision of the American dream,” Hogan suggested a significantly softer version of Reagan’s famous “government is the problem” message, acutely aware that in the midst of a devastating pandemic, many are bound to see government as a savior.
“We need Washington to be a partner, not an impediment,” he said. He may find it much easier to govern with Biden in the Oval Office than Trump, who feuded with Hogan throughout the spring, including over the governor’s purchase of coronavirus tests from South Korea. (The deal was helped by Hogan’s wife, who is a native of that country.) Fearing that an aggrieved Trump would seize the tests, Hogan showed up at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to personally welcome the shipment.
Hogan has received praise for his cautious, science-based approach to the pandemic; the day after speaking in Washington, he announced new restrictions in response to rising case counts in the region. Notably, Republican governors have had some of the highest approval ratings on the coronavirus (Hogan and Mike DeWine of Ohio) and the lowest (Ron DeSantis of Florida and Brian Kemp of Georgia).
Unlike some members of his party who have hesitated to recognize Biden as the president-elect, Hogan urged Trump to acknowledge reality and proceed accordingly. “This is not a joke,” said Hogan, a cancer survivor, of the pandemic. “We can’t wait until the end of January.”
It is, of course, impossible to say just what the political landscape will look like four years from now, given that Trump hasn’t even conceded this month’s presidential race.
“The race for 2024 will remain unsettled in the short term until we know what Trump’s play will be. I will be surprised if he runs in 2024, but he will try his best to mess with whatever field emerges,” said former Republican National Committee chairman and Hogan ally Michael Steele.
For his part, Hogan believes that breaking with Trump is smarter politics than sticking with him. “Americans,” he said, “are yearning to be brought together.”
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