FARGO — John Hoeven, Republican U.S. Senator from North Dakota, gets a pass way too often. That includes in this space, which reserves most of its ire for Hoeven's GOP colleagues Sen. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong.
Cramer invites criticism because of his hyper-partisanship, his provocativeness (sometimes purposeful, sometimes not) and the unashamed opportunism he exhibited by snuggling as close to traitorous President Donald Trump as possible. He is exactly what everybody expected.
The same can't be said for Armstrong, which is why so many barbs are directed his way. Armstrong went to Washington, D.C., a few years ago with a frat-boy vibe, a wealthy man set up by his father who'd be a good guy with whom to share cocktails and talk about baseball or hunting. His politics seemed reasonable and not all that Trumpy. It appears from afar like Armstrong caught the MAGA virus. It also seems the job is a lot harder than he expected. Oh well.
Hoeven always sort of slides under the radar, never saying anything meaningful or interesting and never entangling himself publicly in the partisan fights Cramer loves because they get him national TV time. The joke, always, is that Hoeven spent much of the past four years hiding under his desk trembling, wondering when the chaos was going to end.
He emerged at least a few times, it should be noted. Hoeven spent July 4, 2018, in Moscow with a group of Republican senators meeting with the Russians for reasons that still aren't entirely clear. He spoke at a "Stop the Steal" rally in Bismarck shortly after election day last November, throwing chum to the jackals in red hats. And Hoeven has been a regular at North Dakota State football games at the Fargodome.
So he's had the most important stuff covered.
Hoeven just sort of exists, a career politician who is a nice enough fellow and has spent a comfortable life — also set up by his wealthy father — being as inoffensive as possible to as many people as possible. It works. He's been regularly rewarded with 70% or more of the vote.
If the boat doesn't need rocking, there's no need to rock it. Right?
Trouble is, in the past few months the boat has needed rocking, shaking and stirring. As Trump tried to lay waste to our democracy by claiming Joe Biden stole the election and by saying our voting system is fraudulent, somebody needed to say something.
Like, for example: "The president is wrong. Joe Biden won a free and fair election. He is the president-elect and President Trump should say so."
As Trump tried to overturn the government by inciting right-wing goons to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, somebody needed to say something.
Like, for example: "The president's words were harmful and dangerous. We cannot allow our government to be overthrown by violent seditionists. The president needs to immediately call for peace and stand down."
Hoeven could've been that guy. He is one Republican who has the popularity, political strength and financial security to say whatever he wants, even if it goes against Trump and party leadership. He has the pieces in place to do the right thing instead of issuing press releases stacked with empty talking points.
Instead Hoeven, to nobody's surprise, lived down to expectations and said nothing helpful. He is a meaningless politician who stands for nothing other than what he is told.
Hoeven's legacy will be that when the nation needed him most, he remained irrelevant on purpose.
That's why when a political commentator opined on Twitter that it's possible Hoeven and Cramer will vote to convict Trump during the Senate's impeachment trial, the laughs could be heard for miles.
Cramer will never vote for conviction because he loathes Democrats and has a crush on Trump. At least he has an excuse.
Hoeven would never vote to convict because he doesn't have the constitution. Even with permission from Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, even with the security of knowing he'd still get 68% of the vote in his next election — or perhaps with the knowledge he's ready to retire — Hoeven is not the sort of man to step outside his comfort zone and do the unpredictable. Even if it's best for the nation.
He is a man in a suit with few convictions of his own, other than what's best for him. There's no there there that would make Hoeven do anything other than the easiest thing.
Someday there will be a post office, or perhaps an elementary school, named after Hoeven. That's a good enough legacy for a senator unwilling to take his popularity for a walk and to stand up, once, for something other than the painless option.