Columns » John Brummett

Corporate Democrats vs. populist Republicans

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Recent man-bites-dog headline: Asa Hutchinson says he’ll clamp down on predatory lenders, faults Beebe for taking their money.

By stereotype, Democrats get to be the populists, meaning champions of the common people against the rich and powerful. Republicans get stuck with being the corporate allies.

But stereotypes aren’t fair. In Arkansas, they’re backward.

Our political dynamic is that, to be successful, a Democrat must earn the trust of the business and farm communities. If he accomplishes that, the Republican is left with no choice but to rail against corporate oppressors and position himself as the bona fide scrapper for poor folks.

You’ll notice that the Democrat seems to get the first chance to win over the business community. That’s so for now. It surely will change before long, considering the way Republicans are pouring into Northwest Arkansas, suburban Central Arkansas and Hot Springs Village.

But at the moment ours remains a rural state that lives off the land — farming, timber, mining. You start restricting what we can do on the land and you’ve started messing with our livelihood.

Al Gore, from a neighboring Southern state and closely associated with our Democratic governor who became president, lost the state in 2000. That was because his environmentalist reputation worried the business and farm communities. He was feared as a president who might require expensive pollution control devices of industries or accept the principle of “off-point” water pollution. That’s the notion that a farm or business should be regulated way over here for waste it produces that eventually might flow way over there.

Mark Pryor, Blanche Lincoln and now Mike Beebe — the business and farm communities are comfortable with them, and thus inclined to invest dollars and votes that provide the decisive supplement to the natural Democratic constituencies.

It’s like I was telling Gunner DeLay, the Republican candidate for attorney general.

He has less money than his Democrat opponent, Dustin McDaniel. So, he’s positioned himself as one eschewing donations from regulated public utilities. He’s promised to be the champion of the common ratepayers.

What I told him was that there are two disadvantages currently in Arkansas politics, and that he manages to represent both.

First, Republicans are still outnumbered. Second, common-man populism, while pleasing to the ear, tends to alienate a candidate from establishment business and farm support, and therefore from vital sources of financing.

DeLay scoffed. He said populist championing and economic development should not pose a zero-sum game. He was right. But we weren’t talking about what was right. We were talking about Arkansas politics.

Beebe cruises at the moment as the better-financed Democratic front-runner for governor because he spent two decades in the state Senate gaining the trust of the business and farm communities. They see him as one who will “mind the store,” as a colleague of mine put it in conversation the other day.

That leaves Asa Hutchinson to behave as the populist alternative, railing most recently against predatory payday lenders. A few in the payday lending industry have contributed to the state Democratic Party and a couple have contributed directly to Beebe’s campaign.

It’s the Republican saying we ought to repeal the state law by which some of these lenders have operated with arguable legality. It’s the Republican saying we ought to run these predators out of business if they charge an interest rate, including fees, that effectively amounts on an annualized basis to something exceeding our usury ceiling.

But, of course, a proficient Democrat manages to be sufficiently slippery. As attorney general, Beebe has sued predatory payday lenders. As a state senator, he voted against payday lenders.

A Republican running as a populist finds himself stymied not only in the corporate board room, but in the boxing ring, where he can’t seem to land a solid blow.

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