Column: A snarky comment and presidential apology show our politics don't always have to be lousy

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 22, 2021, file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Facing growing resistance to vaccinations, the governors of Arkansas and Ohio are among several governors asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to grant full approval to coronavirus vaccines in the hope that it will persuade more people to get the shot. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
With his chock-full resume, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson might have once been a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. But not in the age of Donald Trump. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Asa Hutchinson was never going to be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, much less the nation's 47th president.

In another time, before Donald Trump became the blob that swallowed the Republican Party, the former Arkansas governor would have been, at the least, a serious factor in the contest.

His experience — as a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney, former House member, high-level member of the George W. Bush administration — was the sort of check-the-box ascent that marked the resumes of many successful presidential contenders. Hutchinson even acted as a congressional prosecutor in President Clinton's impeachment trial, burnishing his bona fides as a partisan combatant.

What's striking is not the predictable failure of Hutchinson's campaign, which ended Wednesday after he finished light-years behind Trump in the Iowa caucuses. Rather, it was the response from the Democratic National Committee.

“This news comes as a shock to those of us who could’ve sworn he had already dropped out,” DNC Press Secretary Sarafina Chitika said in a statement dripping with snark and condescension.

Even more striking was the response that followed the mean-spirited takedown.

A presidential apology.

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"The president knows [Hutchinson] to be a man of principle who cares about the country and has a strong record of public service," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. Chief of Staff Jeff Zients called the ex-governor "to convey this and apologized for the statement that did not represent the president's views," Jean-Pierre said.

Other Democrats weighed in as well.

"It's disrespectful, it's mean-spirited, it's unnecessary, and it's obnoxious," said Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who's waging an insurgent campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination from Biden.

Hutchinson was grateful for the presidential apology. "It meant a lot to me," he told CNN.

It was also a rare moment of grace in today's sludge- and sewage-filled political environment. You don't have to love thine opposition. But you also don't have to be a jerk.

What distinguished Hutchinson in his much-overlooked campaign was his willingness to loudly and repeatedly call out the menace Trump poses to the country and its 247-year-long experiment with representative democracy. Hutchinson showed the courage of his convictions by making his case even before hostile audiences.

“While some will ignore the destructive behavior of the former president," he said over boos and catcalls at a conservative conference in Florida, "I assure you we ignore it at our own peril."

Notably, at a debate in August, Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were the only two of eight Republicans who said they would not support Trump's return to the White House if he is convicted of criminal charges. (Christie, Trump's other main antagonist in the GOP field, quit the race less than a week before the caucuses.)

That radical notion — that our next president shouldn't have a rap sheet — made Hutchinson a pariah in today's GOP, which seems to have traded its traditional reverence for law and order for a more pliable moral relativism. (Sure, shredding the Constitution is suboptimal, but at least interest rates were lower when Trump was in office!)

Hutchinson "is a guy ... with all kinds of qualifications" who "ran a completely honorable campaign," said Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has spent decades observing presidential politics. "But the larger point here is that in this cult, there is no way somebody attacking the cult leader can prevail."

If nothing else, Ornstein suggested, basic decency argued for a more cordial response to Hutchinson's inevitable exit from the race: "Why kick a guy when he's down?"

But he believes Democrats also missed a political opportunity and instead should have said: "'Thank you, Asa Hutchinson, for being honest and taking on a narcissistic sociopath, an autocrat, an insurrectionist and sexual offender.'"

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As you might expect, there have been calls for Chitika to be fired from the DNC. But that seems unduly harsh. Washington is aswarm with an army of young, eager and ambitious staffers who possess more in the way of swagger and attitude than good sense. Many grow up and out of it.

Better to treat the occasion as one of those teachable moments and appreciate the presidential act of cross-party kindness for the rarity that it is.

"You fight hard, but at the end of the day you want to make sure you treat each other with respect," said Hutchinson, who suggested Biden's unbidden apology reflected "the good parts of American politics."

Those good parts exist. You just have to squint hard these days to see them.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.