Right before our weary and weepy eyes, Larry Hogan, the reputedly moderate Maryland governor and Never Trumper, turned himself into the kind of Republican he knows he needs to be to win the 2024 presidential nomination of his Trumpified party. Hogan, the self-styled champion of bipartisanship, will play as nasty as the rest to establish his right-wing bona fides.
Within hours of Thursday’s suicide bombings that killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghan civilians, the Maryland governor auditioned for the part, issuing a line of condolences then quickly blasting Joe Biden’s decision to do what the previous president’s deal with the Taliban called for — withdrawal of our military from Afghanistan after 20 years. “This administration’s decisions have put the lives of thousands of Americans at the mercy of terrorists,” Hogan tweeted, begging any reasonable person to ask what the real estate broker from Anne Arundel County would have done differently.
And then Hogan, eager to join the throngs of Republicans kicking Biden even before the smoke cleared in Kabul, appeared on the Fox News website with an essay about what a terrible man the Democratic president is. Hogan called Biden’s withdrawal order a “catastrophic failure” and slammed him as untrustworthy. Why wait a decent interval before slamming a man you see as your potential opponent for the White House? It’s as if the governor was waiting for an opportunity to pounce and the suicide bombers provided it.
Once upon a time — before Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Trump and MAGA, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson infected the country with Stage IV cynicism — such a display of opportunism would have been regarded as offensive. It would have grossed out the vast majority of Americans, including perhaps the old Larry Hogan.
Once upon a time, exploiting the deaths of troops to make political points would have seemed crass. That was back in the day, way back when we had a draft, when more Americans, including politicians, experienced military service. America is now divided in many ways, and one of the starkest is between the tiny fraction who serve in the military and the vast majority who don’t.
Biden deserves criticism for not setting a better course for the withdrawal of troops, but he inherited a bad situation forged by both parties. Once the initial mission in Afghanistan was complete, most Americans tuned out. We tuned back in when Navy SEALs killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, but we went back to working and shopping after that. If you were not in a military family with a stake in the mission, you hardly paid attention until Biden flipped the switch.
Like millions of Americans, Larry Hogan had other things to worry about, until now.
Our governor apparently thinks he has a shot at being president because he lowered highway tolls in Maryland. He has not announced that he’s running, but apparently his fans have been pushing him to do so. He’s developed a shtick — pushing bipartisanship, claiming that Washington is broken and that both sides (Democrats and Republicans) are bad.
And yet, Hogan knows that such a false equivalence will get him nowhere in a party that is still in the thrall of Trump.
So, on “Face the Nation,” he called Biden’s withdrawal “an unmitigated disaster” when, of course, it’s not. In all the chaos, our military has evacuated more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan within the last two weeks, and it would have been nice had Hogan acknowledged that. But he can’t play nice if he’s going to capture the limited attention of Trump supporters who favor hard-core tribal politics to genteel statesmanship and compromise.
It was not the first time we heard Hogan use the term. He called Maryland’s 2020 primary election an “unmitigated disaster,” when, in fact, state and local election officials did a generally good job under challenging circumstances. More than 1.5 million Marylanders managed to vote despite the pandemic; no one who was in line when a polling place closed was denied the right to vote.
But invoking hyperbole and calling something the government does an “unmitigated disaster” — that comes from the Trumpian-Republican playbook, and Hogan must subscribe.
So, while running for president might strike many analysts as odd, if not futile, you don’t have to be a keen political analyst to see what’s going on here. Hogan is prohibited from serving a third consecutive term. He’s had a generally popular run as a red governor of a blue state. He gets facetime on national television. While some Marylanders criticize his administration’s response to the pandemic as inconsistent, particularly after the first phase of infections, the state is on a relatively good path, with 60% of the eligible population fully vaccinated. And when compared with more prominent Republican governors who might run for president, the senseless ones in Texas and Florida, Hogan looks like a true grown-up.
But all those descriptions of him as a moderate or reasonable or rational Republican only fly because he speaks in the tempered tones of the business class and wears glasses. If Trump gets indicted and Hogan enters the Republican primary to face the likes of Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis or Rick Scott, he’ll have to ratchet up the hot talk and play nasty. It’ll be unbecoming, but in today’s Republican Party, it’s the only way for Hogan to gain any traction.