Arkansas Republicans made their last stand against Mike Beebe in the form of three television ads broadcast during the final two weeks of the gubernatorial campaign.
The first one features children saying they want to “pander to special interests” and be a “backslapper” — “just like Mike Beebe.”
The second one ties Beebe to the Nick Wilson public corruption scandal, saying Beebe “let it happen” and “let [Wilson] stay in office” after Wilson’s conviction.
The third ad features Gov. Mike Huckabee cautioning, “You and I remember what it was like when powerful insiders made all the decisions and the rest of us paid for them. Today we stand at a crossroads. Do we go back to a government of insiders …?”
There is a good reason why the Republicans saved these attacks for last. They are among the only indisputable criticisms of Beebe.
After all, Beebe is not very ideological. He is a careful politician with a mostly inoffensive record, and he built a broad base of support through his efficient leadership of the state Senate for many years.
But the flip side of that coin is that Beebe’s strength was helping people get what they wanted, whether it was a fellow senator or a lobbyist. He was highly skilled in navigating the clubby atmosphere of the legislature, and he didn’t rock the boat.
So it’s not really unjustified to think of Beebe as a “backslapper” or someone who “panders to special interests.” (Although having young children make those accusations wasn’t such a great idea.) And while Beebe was not complicit in Wilson’s crimes, he certainly failed in his oversight responsibilities as Senate leader, and then he put collegiality before duty in not acting to immediately remove Wilson after the verdicts.
As for Huckabee’s charge that a Beebe reign means a “government of insiders,” that is a legitimate fear. Many of Beebe’s best friends are powerful executives and lobbyists with the state’s biggest industries. He is also very close with legislative leaders at a time when the state Senate will be run by a member of “the Brotherhood” — a faction united only by a desire to preserve a slush fund for pork projects — and the state House will be run by a speaker wholly owned by some of the aforementioned lobbyists.
Still, even if the critiques of Beebe are fair, it’s too late. There are plenty of other good reasons to elect him instead of Asa Hutchinson, and he is probably going to win.
Therefore now is the time to remind Beebe that being governor is something entirely different than being a legislative facilitator. Not only does it demand bold executive leadership, but it inevitably summons the judgment of history. The short-term trade is less important than the long-term achievement.
With that in mind, Beebe has the unique opportunity to put two decades’ worth of accumulated political capital and credibility into doing what no one else can do: convincing legislators to reform their own cozy but corrupt system.
It would be like Richard Nixon going to China. In 1972, Nixon surprised the world by traveling to the communist nation in a first step toward normalizing U.S.-Chinese relations. Political observers said that only Nixon — a longtime fervent anti-communist — could have made the trip without being accused of being soft on communism.
Similarly, only Beebe has the credentials, relationships and dealmaking ability to enact limits on lobbying and gifts to legislators. His friends would listen to him and trust him on that issue in a way they would for no one else.
Plus it would be beneficial for Beebe in several ways. Of course it would neutralize the primary political complaint against him. But it would also potentially shield his administration from its most obvious Achilles heel, because if special interests penetrate government too deeply, Beebe could lose control of his agenda and be vulnerable to another Nick Wilson-like scandal under his watch.
And then there is the judgment of history, which could only be positive if he acted forthrightly to clean up the political process.
It may be too much to expect from Beebe, or any Arkansas office-holder, considering the entrenched interests that would have to be overcome. But rarely does the man fit the moment so perfectly. No other governor in anyone’s living memory has spent as much time in the state legislature and understands it as well as Beebe.
His legacy may rise or fall on whether he recognizes his singular position and seizes it to make a lasting, progressive change.