When Bill Clinton came to Little Rock the other day to campaign for Mike Beebe — this was a couple of weeks before he reared up on Chris Wallace — he told a crowd, “In Arkansas, Democrats don’t get swift-boated.”
That was a shot at John Kerry for wind-surfing and otherwise coasting while George W. Bush turned loose a supposedly independent group, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to run television ads smearing Kerry’s war heroism.
This is a cultural thing. Kerry, Michael Dukakis — they let Republican charges go unanswered because, considering the insulation of their Massachusetts environment, they couldn’t imagine that anyone would take smears seriously.
I remember asking Dukakis, on a train out of Walnut Ridge in the fall of 1988, how he intended to respond to Republican charges that he was a "pastel patriot" for vetoing the mandated recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in Massachusetts’ public schools. He shrugged, literally. He said people understood the constitutional issue.
In Arkansas, Clinton learned in 1980 that if you depend on the voters to see through attacks against you, you’re in trouble. He ran for president with a war room and a rapid-response unit.
I’m not saying people are stupid. I’m saying people need to hear you say that the other guy is full of it.
Now Beebe is nearing a moment.
As a prominent Republican was acknowledging to me the other day, Arkansas is such that Joe Blow, Democrat, will out-poll John Doe, Republican, by about 60-to-40, just on party affiliation alone. A Republican’s only hope is to peel points away with negative attacks designed to paint the Democrat as a liberal better suited for, oh, Massachusetts.
There’s this “527” group, meaning one organized as if independent of Hutchinson’s campaign and the state Republican Party. It's airing television commercials branding Beebe a liberal for voting 15 times for tax increases in 20 years as a state senator.
There are good explanations for all those votes. Some of the taxes were proposed or permitted into law by the Republican governor, Mike Huckabee. One of the votes was to refer to the people the question of whether to raise gasoline taxes for interstate highway debt, and the people said yes, absolutely. One tax was on soft drinks to keep the federal Medicaid match flowing in the race of rising health care costs and sustain the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. One helped keep nursing homes open.
If indeed Arkansas Democrats don't get swift-boated, then Beebe surely will show up soon in a talking-head television commercial explaining forcefully what I just explained, and more.
I'm waiting for him to tell prime-time viewers that they ought to ask Asa Hutchinson a few things: Would he prefer impassable interstate highways? Or reduced care for sick babies? Or no place to take the chronically ill elderly? Or all of the above? And shouldn’t Asa take up some of that with Huckabee, soon to be campaigning at his side?
Meantime, Asa has unveiled his own direct commercial in which he sits on a school bus and vows to stop three-hour rides for school kids. He blames Beebe for such hauls.
Surely we can expect Beebe to shoot back promptly, perhaps seated in a student-filled classroom explaining that Hutchinson wants to retreat on course standards and probably get the state back in court, and that, by the way, Asa seems to be talking about one little school, Paron, that Huckabee's Education Board wanted closed.
Beebe has issued a news release saying a version of that. But news releases are read by dozens. TV ads are seen by hundreds of thousands.
The swift boats are lurking. It’s time for Beebe to put the rugged image ads and the general message ads — the work shirt, the camouflage — in the can.
We're done with the prologue. Now we're into the book. The race has entered its fluid stage.