Almost three years ago I traveled here to talk to this state’s relatively new Republican governor, Larry Hogan, about his mystifying popularity. Maryland is about as blue as it gets, with more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, and Hogan’s approval rating was above 70 percent.
His detractors chalked that up to a honeymoon period and to the candor with which he was waging (and winning) a battle against cancer. It wouldn’t last, they said.
Then came Donald Trump, who got only 34 percent of the vote in Maryland. Hogan’s party affiliation was shaping up to be a bigger liability than ever.
But when we met anew for a long lunch at the governor’s residence on Wednesday, his approval rating was nearly 70 percent, according to Morning Consult, which ranked him as the second-most-popular governor in America, just one point behind Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker — who, fascinatingly, is also a Republican in a Democratic stronghold. We talked about that and about Hogan’s race for a second term against Ben Jealous, an ally of Bernie Sanders’s who is the gubernatorial nominee of the Democratic Party. Mostly we talked about Trump: what Hogan says about him, what Hogan doesn’t. Is Hogan a model of measured resistance? Has he pulled too many punches? His fate on Nov. 6 may hinge on Maryland voters’ answer to that.
What follows are edited excerpts from our interview.
Frank Bruni: What’s Charlie Baker doing right that you’re doing wrong?
Gov. Larry Hogan: We’re friends. We text back and forth. I say, “Charlie, what do I have to do?”
We’re joking about your persistently high approval ratings. When you saw the result on Nov. 8, 2016, was there a part of you that thought, “This is going to a be a problem for me”?
Yes. First of all, I was very surprised by the outcome. I did not endorse or support or vote for Trump. Didn’t go to the convention. I think I was the first Republican to say, “I don’t want anything to do with this.” I knew it was going to be a different terrain. But during the Obama administration, during the Trump administration, I always said: “I didn’t run for Congress. I didn’t run for the Senate. I’m not in Washington. My focus — what they hired me to do — was run the state of Maryland.”
When I disagree with Trump, I’m going to stand up and let people know. I stand up pretty clearly when I think they’re making a mistake, like on health care, they’re cutting funds for the Chesapeake Bay — a host of issues. What makes things more complicated is we’re in a deep, deep blue state where the president’s approval rating is in the 20s.
It’s that high here?
Low 20s. The Democrats are going to say, “Hogan and Trump.” “All Republicans are bad.” But the average Maryland voter says, “He’s kind of the opposite of Trump.” Our whole thing is working toward compromise and reaching across the aisle. We have a two-thirds majority in both houses that are Democrats, and yet we’ve made a lot of progress. That’s sort of the opposite of what’s going on down there, so they’re not pinning it on me.
You said, regarding Trump, “I don’t want anything to do with this.” Anything to do with what?
He wasn’t the type of guy who I thought should be president. I didn’t like the tone during the campaign. There were a lot of people running, and I didn’t think he was the most qualified. I didn’t think he was going to win, either.
I’ll say this: One on one, he’s a different person than the persona you see out there. But I don’t like the tweeting. I don’t like the name-calling. The divisiveness really is not good for the country. But he’s not the only one to blame.
In what ways do you think he’s doing the most damage?
I wish he would stop tweeting.
Is it adult behavior?
That’s a tough one.
I don’t think it’s a tough one at all.
I don’t think it is adult behavior, and I don’t think it’s very presidential, and I think it’s hurting his ability to get things done.
I said in my inaugural address that I wanted to usher in a new era of bipartisanship and work toward that middle ground where we could all stand together. This was two years before Trump. There really used to be a time — it was never great — but there was a time, both in Congress and the legislatures, when people got along better.
You didn’t even utter Donald Trump’s name in your last two State of the State speeches.
I did talk about Washington a lot in my last one — the dysfunction, the divisiveness. Everybody, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, wants civility. They want bipartisanship.
Everybody wants that?
Most people. There’s a small percentage on the left that doesn’t want it. There’s a small percentage on the right. Our polling shows that that’s about 15 percent on either end. But 70 percent of people are in the middle. Our nominating processes and the way the parties are structured and gerrymandering tends to spread things apart.
People often mention four of you governors in the same breath, four popular, moderate Republicans in blue states: you and Charlie Baker and Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Phil Scott in Vermont. But would any one of you have even a prayer of winning a Republican presidential nomination?
The conventional wisdom would be no. If you had open primaries and everyone was allowed to vote, they probably would vote for a centrist and somebody who could get along with both sides. But the primaries are controlled on both sides by activists who are more liberal or more conservative than the rest of their parties.
You mention that you’ve not been afraid to contradict the president or buck the administration when you think they’re wrong. I know you’ve done it on climate. I know you’ve done it on arming teachers.
On clean air. On clean water. On health care. On the border. I was the first Republican governor to pull troops from the border.
But you came under fire shortly after Trump was inaugurated for not saying anything publicly about his proposed Muslim ban.
It really wasn’t impacting our state. There wasn’t a single person at B.W.I. Airport who was detained. I didn’t approve of it. People asked, “Why aren’t you at B.W.I. protesting with Martin O’Malley and one of our senators?” My job as governor isn’t to go out and lead protest marches.
I think what some people were saying was, “Why not just issue a statement?”
I guess that at the time, it didn’t rise to the point where it was something I thought I should weigh in on.
Now you’re getting a lot of, “Why is he saying nothing about the Kavanaugh nomination?”
That’s an easy one. Governors have absolutely nothing to do with the Supreme Court. I’ve never taken a position on any Supreme Court nominee, whether it was under Obama or Trump. Why should I? Why should they care what I have to say? It’s the Senate that gets to decide that.
But what if I said, as devil’s advocate, you are a leader …
They elected me to do a particular job: to turn around the state of Maryland. They don’t want the governor spending his entire day fooling with Washington.
But what is your obligation, if any, as a citizen with an especially loud bullhorn to call out what many might consider moral outrages committed by the president of your country?
I’ve probably spoken out more than any Republican governor in America. Most of them haven’t said a word.
A former Republican governor with a political profile very much like yours, Christine Todd Whitman, recently wrote an op-ed saying that Republican politicians should be calling on President Trump to resign because he’s unfit to serve. What do you think of that?
That’s a pretty strong statement. And obviously Christine, not holding any office and not being obligated to represent any interests or any state, has every right to make that kind of recommendation. I’m not sure I’d be at that point yet. I’m very unhappy with many of the president’s policies. I’m very disappointed in the way that he has conducted himself. But without seeing more evidence?
My dad was on the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of Nixon. He was the first Republican to call for his impeachment and was really the reason that Nixon resigned. He was the only Republican in Congress to vote for all three articles of impeachment. He was an F.B.I. agent. He saw all of the evidence, and after reviewing volumes of evidence, he decided that his president was guilty of impeachable offenses and should be removed from office.
I can’t sit in judgment. Whether I like what’s going on, the people overwhelmingly elected him as president.
I don’t know about overwhelmingly.
He has been elected. To overturn the voters of the country because you don’t happen to agree or because you think he has some shortcomings — it’s a step too far until you see evidence of real impeachable offenses.
Governor Whitman was writing in the immediate aftermath of Helsinki and that news conference. What did you think of that performance?
It was embarrassing. It was disappointing. But can you say the president needs to be removed from office because of his poor performance?
Does it create in you serious questions about whether he’s compromised in some way in his relationship with Russia?
I’m not willing to go that far. Just from what I see in the media, it doesn’t give me the facts to make that kind of decision.
If Trump took concrete actions to stop Robert Mueller and his probe, how would you feel about it and what would you say about it?
I think that would be a step too far. No man is above the law, not even the president of the United States. Do I think maybe the investigation is going too far afield of its original intent? Yes. But I think we need to let the investigation be completed.
Do you feel secure that Trump won’t do that?
I was hoping you were coming down to talk about me and, “Aren’t you the future of the Republican Party, and aren’t you the opposite of what’s happening in Washington, and are you going to save the Republican Party?”
Instead it’s Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump. I went from two years of talking about just the things I did in my job, the things that people care about in this state. The media would ask me questions, and I’m very open with the media, but nothing outside the state ever came up. As soon as Trump started to look like he was gaining traction in the campaign, every single question every single day from very single reporter was: “What about Trump?” All of a sudden I had to answer questions about some guy from New York who’s running for president, and I’m here in Maryland and I’m not running for president.
They said: “Are you going to support Trump?” “No.” “Are you going to the Republican convention?” “No.” “Are you going to endorse him?” “No.” “Well, are you going to vote for him?” “No.”
We’ve been attacked since the day he was inaugurated, since the day he was elected. It’s Hogan and Trump, Hogan and Trump, Hogan and Trump.
I do want to talk about the Republican Party. Donald Trump is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. So what does it even mean that you say you’re a Republican now?
Look, I’ve been a Republican since I was first registered to vote, since I was 18. I was right out of college when Reagan was running. I come from that kind of mold. Donald Trump was a Democrat until like three years ago, four years ago. He’s not a Republican.
Given that the party has departed, permanently or temporarily, from so much that you believe in, what’s the point of identifying with it anymore? Why not just say, “I’m an independent for the time being”?
Ben Jealous — let’s bring it back home — is the nominee for the Maryland Democratic Party to run for governor. He’s a far-left socialist who wants to increase the state budget by 100 percent, increase taxes by 100 percent, free everything. Almost all the Democrats in Maryland disagree with that. Fifty Democrats have endorsed me. The unions are endorsing me. By your logic, you’d say, “There’s this crazy guy that they nominated, so all you Democrats should no longer be Democrats because you don’t agree with him.”
Do you think the Republican Party on the far side of Trump — and on the far side of what I will call the obsequiousness of the Republicans in Congress — is going to look more like Donald Trump’s Republican Party or Larry Hogan’s?
I think there is going to be a return to normalcy in the Republican Party, and I think there’s an opportunity for somebody or some people to come along and put it back on the right track. I don’t see this continuing beyond this presidency.
What do you see out there that gives you that hope?
What I see is people like Charlie Baker and me receiving overwhelming majorities. There’s a huge portion not just of Massachusetts and Maryland but America that really is crying out for moderation and a lack of divisiveness and civility and cooperation and bipartisanship. They’re not going to say, “Let’s continue doing this crazy.” They’re going to be done with it.
But the primary system that we talked about before retards that, and that’s not changing.
Maybe it can. I think the pendulum tends to swing back and forth.
Speaking of pendulums, what do you think happens on Nov. 6 this year?
I think it’s going to be a wake-up call. I think there’s going to be somewhat of a blue wave.
I believe and have written that centrism deserves more respect. I worry that compromise has become a dirty word.
If there’s going to be this centrist movement, it’s going to come from the governors. I think that’s where most of the real laboratories of democracy are. In Washington nothing ever gets done. I try not to ever go down there because I’m sickened by the place.
I got an email from a very recent graduate of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was beautifully thought-out. Soulful. He said, “I’m really struggling because I’m admiring the job that Governor Hogan has done, but in the context of this presidency, I’m wondering whether it’s moral to vote for a Republican at all.” Respond to that?
I think it would be immoral for him to take out his frustrations with Washington on the guy that he thinks is doing a good job in Maryland. The party has gone to a place I never thought we would, but I still believe that we’re going to get it back on track.
Are you ashamed of your party?
I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of the party. I’m sometimes embarrassed by some of the people in the party. I think that frankly the Democrats should be ashamed of some of the people in their party. I certainly wouldn’t become a Democrat today.
I gave you a different option.
Independent-thinking and independent-minded — there’s no question I am. I still tend to identify with the Republican Party. I may not be a Trump Republican. But I don’t imagine he’s going to be around forever.
The New York Times
August 4, 2018