Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Queen of Having It Both Ways

I keep hearing and reading that many Republican leaders want to move on from Donald Trump. I can’t imagine why. His role in a riot that could have gotten some of them killed? His masterful design of their midterm debacle? The possibility he’ll be indicted any day now?

They’ve had enough, or so they keep signaling and whispering.

And then they go and choose Sarah Huckabee Sanders to deliver the party’s official response to President Biden’s State of the Union address.

Yeah, yeah: She’s young, she’s a working mom, she’s the first female governor of Arkansas (where she’s not yet through her first month in office). All of that says fresh start.

But nothing else about her does, not if you have a memory and a moral code. She spent nearly two years as Trump’s press secretary, the central figure in excusing his outrages and laundering his lies. She spent much of her campaign for governor invoking his name, appearing with him, even sending money his way — for the catering of fund-raisers for her at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump was her cause and then Trump was her springboard, and that’s what’s so fascinating about where she is now and what she’s being asked to do. She’s supposed to carry Republicans beyond Trump when she so carefully carries Trump inside her. It’s ludicrous. It’s perfect. It’s what makes her such a fitting mascot for a party that won’t come clean about the compromises it has made, the values it has trashed and the madness it has abetted.

Her big night isn’t necessarily a big prize. Giving the rebuttal to a State of the Union address hasn’t lifted those who’ve done it over recent years to the higher offices that many of them sought or dreamed about. I refer you to Bobby Jindal. To Marco Rubio. To Stacey Abrams.

“Doing this is a high-wire act for a brand-new governor — I think that takes a lot of guts,” Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist who served as the principal media consultant for the 2014 and 2018 campaigns of Sanders’s predecessor as Arkansas governor, Asa Hutchinson, told me. “There are plenty of people who were more seasoned than she is and failed. I’ve been on phone calls with people who have been asked to do this and they’ve turned it down — just for this reason.”

But the assignment flatters its recipient for at least a fleeting moment. Republicans’ message to Sanders: You have our seal of approval and are a rising star.

“Good things happen to people who make bad, unethical choices,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush and the author of the recent best seller “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell.” “It sucks. Been cultivating a practice of acceptance in yoga.”

What is Sanders cultivating? Her age — she’s just 40 — and her newness in office mean that she’s not among those Republicans who might offer themselves up as alternatives to Trump for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

But 2028? 2032? Wholly conceivable. Maybe even likely. And certainly not what most people envisioned back when she was furiously rapping the knuckles of White House journalists on television every afternoon and trying to vaporize the CNN reporter Jim Acosta with her death glare. As Trump’s mouthpiece, she put on a fiery performance for a combustible boss. She served faithfully.

But she was — and is — an operator with inside moves as well. That got lost in the kerfuffle. Before her White House gig, over many years, she didn’t just watch closely as her father, Mike Huckabee, governed Arkansas for more than a decade and as he twice sought the presidency. She clung to his side. She worked on campaigns of his. She got significant experience. She got serious exposure.

“I think I’ve known her since she was probably 15, and she’s beyond smart, savvy and politically sophisticated — arrestingly so,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has huge sway with social conservatives in the Republican Party.

He told me that he’s especially impressed by her proven or potential credibility with all the important subgroups in the Republican Party. The daughter of a Baptist preacher and the graduate of a Baptist college, she’s beloved by evangelicals. The most ardent Trump enthusiasts are ardently enthusiastic about how loyal she has been to him. Executive orders that she signed just after her inauguration last month pegged her as a small-government fiscal conservative. And a party that at least pays lip service to local control has always had a special regard for its governors.

“She checks every box — and that’s very unusual,” Reed said.

Her focus of late puts her in line less with Trump and more with fellow Republican governors Ron DeSantis in Florida and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, who have styled themselves as post-Trump alternatives.

She sounded like both of them when she vowed, at her inauguration, to make certain that schools in Arkansas were “not brainwashing our children with a left-wing political agenda.” She subsequently announced that she had picked Jacob Oliva, who worked prominently alongside DeSantis on education issues in Florida, to become Arkansas’ new education secretary.

She understands her currency in a party that would like to be able to claim more diversity than it has and to seem a bit more modern than it does. “I happen to be the youngest governor currently serving anywhere in the country,” she said during those inauguration remarks, just happening to mention that.

She went for relatability: “As a mom, I’m reminded of what is at stake every time I tuck my three kids into bed each night.”

She’s asserting a political identity distinct from Trump’s. But his imprint on her is indelible — and she hasn’t made much of an effort, not that I can tell, to erase it. Maybe she’s unwilling to sacrifice what benefit it still brings.

Or maybe she appreciates the futility of trying to make such a break. She wasn’t just one of the many Trump administration officials who shrugged off his laudatory comments about the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., his praise of autocrats, his flirtations with autocracy, his cruelty to migrant children, his bigoted tirades, his hush money for a porn star, his phantasmagorical dishonesty. She spun them into a fantasy of strong and inspiring leadership.

“Her briefings are breathtaking,” I wrote in a column in 2017. “For some 20 minutes every afternoon, down is up, paralysis is progress, enmity is harmony, stupid is smart, villain is victim, disgrace is honor, plutocracy is populism and Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia if anyone would summon the nerve to investigate her (because, you know, that never, ever happens).”

Her motivation? She made clear that she cherished Trump’s stated opposition to abortion and the promises he made — and kept — in that regard. And so she minimized and rationalized all the ways in which he flagrantly offended Christian principles.

But then she’s the queen of having it both ways. She has bashed journalists in public — the base eats that up — and then made nice with them in private. She’ll emphasize bread-and-butter issues one minute and, the next, push an Arkansas bill that would ban drag performances outside of strip clubs and similar environments (as if, Miller said, “she’s never enjoyed some bottomless mimosas and lip-syncing with the gals”).

She has a fine rapport with the destructionists who torment House Speaker Kevin McCarthy while also being in good with him. “Her MAGA bona fides are unassailable, but McCarthy doesn’t have to worry she’ll start talking about the Dominion machines or something else off message,” Miller said.

Schriefer pointed to a similar balancing act. “Republicans who support Trump can like her,” he said, “but Republicans who support DeSantis can like her.”

Does that add up to universal likability? Or rank opportunism? I’m going with the latter, especially in light of her answer, during her primary in Arkansas last year, to the question of whether she believed the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know the depths of how much fraud existed,” she said, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, adding: “We know there is fraud in every election. How far and wide it went, I don’t think that will be something that will be ever determined.”

How mushy. How weaselly. She knows better, and it turns out there’s one box she hasn’t checked: Integrity.

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