SILVER SPRING, Md. (April 28, 2020)—Grappling with the greatest test of his term, Gov. Larry Hogan, R, has been lauded for his leadership by experts who say his focus on facts and the future have saved lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
Longtime Hogan watchers say he has managed a diplomatic minefield well while leading the National Governors Association, and walking a fine line when he criticizes the federal response by rarely saying anything negative about President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence by name.
His political standing appears to be rising, but the impact Hogan's performance will have on his future political aspirations is still up in the air. The gains the second-term governor has made keeping the coronavirus curve down could be damaged long term if his pivot toward the state's economic recovery does not create a sharp curve up.
"It obviously won't be his fault. No one could have expected him to know (this virus) was coming, but it will be his job to right the (economic) ship once the pandemic has subsided," said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.
"I think people do care a lot about the lives that were saved and the governor's actions now, but the second part of this is the long-term economic recovery, and that will be really important, too."
Hogan acknowledged the importance of reopening the state for business as he announced a three-stage plan that could lift his March 30 stay-at-home order as soon as early May. He invoked his experience as a business owner while pledging to do everything possible to reopen the state in a safe way.
"The entire focus of my administration has been growing the private sector, creating jobs and turning our economy around. It's the reason I ran for governor," Hogan said Friday. "And it breaks my heart to see so many Marylanders struggling and going through so much economic pain.
"So let me be very, very clear. Other than keeping Marylanders safe—saving lives and defeating this hidden enemy—there is absolutely nothing more important to me than getting people back to work."
Maryland had 16,616 confirmed cases and 723 deaths as of Friday afternoon, but Kromer and other experts who have been watching Hogan respond to the pandemic told Capital News Service that Maryland has benefited immensely from his leadership on the national stage.
Hogan's leadership of the National Governors Association gave him early access to information about outbreaks and what worked elsewhere, they say. In just 41 days, the state opened 6,700 new hospital beds. Just this week, Hogan acquired 500,000 test kits from his wife's native country of South Korea.
His popularity in Maryland has also given him the political capital he needs to criticize the Trump Administration's response, said Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland who has written two books about Trump.
"He has a degree of freedom to speak without political consequences that I think a lot of red state governors don't have," Eberly said.
"You would not see someone like (Gov. Mike) DeWine in Ohio (doing this.) He has chartered his own course but he has not been critical of the president. Of course not, he is in a state where the president won by a huge margin and is still very popular."
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Hogan held a special position in national politics.
The son of the only Republican congressman to vote for all three of President Richard Nixon's articles of impeachment, Hogan has been the only politician who could say that he thought Republicans should have been able to call witnesses during the House's impeachment hearings and say that Trump's Senate trial was "kind of a sham and a joke" because there were no witnesses.
This week, Trump suggested Hogan "needed to get a little knowledge" on federal testing sites when he suggested Maryland didn't need the South Korean testing kits. In response, Hogan wrote a letter to the president thanking him for making the federal labs available to test his newly acquired test kits. It was the latest salvo in their verbal battle.
"You're not going to see Hogan on television just blasting the president. That's never been his style in Maryland," Kromer said. "Hogan has often provided a contrast with the president.
"He has always wanted to keep a working relationship with the federal government."
Hogan's communications office did not make a spokesperson available for comment but Hogan told Politico in an interview Thursday he has tried to be as fair and direct as possible when dealing with the president.
"I say exactly what (the governors) think and sometimes that doesn't make the president happy, but I don't go out of my way to, you know, poke the bear or criticize him unnecessarily," Hogan said. "I just try to be helpful with suggestions about the things that we really need and I try to push for the things we need."
Hogan's leadership skills have best been displayed at regular press conferences, when he relies on facts and experts, said Gerald Suarez, a professor in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland and fellow at the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Suarez also led the redesign of the White House's communications office under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
"He is driven by facts. That is so important in a crisis. You share what you know. You share how you became aware of it. That gives you a basis for a decision. He has been pragmatic," Suarez said.
"He is maintaining balance by giving you hope, by demonstrating mastery of the issue, but at the same time, he is being realistic."
Hogan's three-stage plan to reopen Maryland is cautious. Stage one would end the stay-at-home order but would still require social distancing. Businesses that require close quarters or a lot of touching would likely remain closed. Hogan said golf courses could reopen but told Politico Thursday that it would be just 18 holes.
"I don't see you being able to hang at the bar with your buddies in the clubhouse," Hogan told Politico, "but I think you will be able to get out there and take a few swings in the grass in a safe way."
When he does decide to reopen the 19th hole, it won't be for political reasons. The governor has said he isn't considering the politics, and Hogan watchers agree.
"I get the impression that Hogan would be doing this even if it was the last thing he did as an elected official," Eberly said.
That pragmatic governing style may be just what the Republican party might need.
"There is still this sense that there needs to be an alternative voice to Trump and Trumpism. Say Trump loses in November and his grip on the GOP breaks, the party is going to be looking for something different," Eberly said. "For the last four years, they have turned into this cult of personality. They will be looking for an actual philosophy of governing as opposed to following what the president says each day."