Columns » Max Brantley

Looking for a leader

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Ideas rarely trump personality in political races. But what if both ideas and personality are lacking?

You might be in Arkansas. Or maybe Memphis last weekend.

Political newcomer Bill Halter last week ended his brief flirtation with a run for governor and dropped down to the lieutenant governor’s race. That left Attorney General Mike Beebe unopposed for the Democratic nomination and Asa Hutchinson expecting an opponent-free ride to the Republican nomination.

Halter, to his credit, had plenty of ideas. (Still does, though they are of less interest in a race to preside over the Arkansas Senate.) His signature idea, a state lottery, got roughed up in the press. And even though a majority of voters would accept a lottery in Arkansas, that’s not the same thing as a pent-up demand. It hasn’t set the electorate on fire.

Neither Beebe nor Hutchinson seems likely to inspire much more voter fervor, either by ideas or personality. Each is a career politician and short of electrifying. Beebe had more success as a legislative technician than Hutchinson had as head of a major part of the widely criticized Homeland Security operation, including port security. But their idea of the big idea is a tax break on electricity for big businesses. (Homeowners? You keep paying. Don’t you always?)

The candidates aren’t helped by comparison with the current governor, Mike Huckabee. The Huckster can crack a joke, of the cornpone Baptist pulpit variety. He can toss off a line that might momentarily dazzle a reporter who’s never heard him before. A good example was his unoriginal quip (which reporters on-hand didn't recognize as a well-worn knockoff) at the regional Republican meeting in Memphis last weekend. Huckabee said he’d rather fight terrorists in Baghdad than Boston. Not that he’s ever put on a military uniform. Not that anyone has attacked Boston. Not that he has any knowledge of Baghdad beyond the confines of the security cocoon in which he made a brief VIP visit recently.

Huckabee nonetheless brought some oratorical spark to the beauty pageant for presidential hopefuls. Anybody would have looked alluring against the simpering Bill Frist and other insomnia cures. But when it came to ideas, Huckabee didn’t offer much beyond his increasingly worn weight loss story. Everything is looking up in Iraq, said The Huckster. Everything everywhere is looking up, in fact.

His Pollyanna act might have been greeted by the affection-starved Bush administration with the enthusiasm Huck once accorded a cheeseburger. But the Republicans in Memphis knew it was high-fat baloney. They wanted more leadership, even if it was Mitt Romney’s gay bashing. As it happens, Huckabee knows a little about leadership. He’s raised taxes a few times. He’s presided over an enormous expansion of government spending, including on socialized medicine. He’s advocated state control of schools, even consolidation, despite howls of outrage from the small-school fiefdoms.

Huckabee decided he dare not talk such talk at a Republican convention. But who knows? Perhaps he wouldn’t have finished sixth in the presidential straw poll if he had offered more than a smile and a shoeshine. At least he HAD a rhetorical shoeshine on offer.

With the primary season not yet officially underway, the leading candidates already are striving to prove who can be the least offensive. Instead of leadership, we get sloganeering and pandering to the privileged. And not much charisma in the bargain.


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