Columns » Warwick Sabin

Making a difference

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The campaign websites for gubernatorial candidates Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson were designed by the same company. Both sites have the same basic elements, shuffled around so the similarities won’t be too obvious. You will barely find a reference to which political party each man represents, even in their biographies. Worst of all, neither man outlines any specific goals he would want to achieve as governor. A document posted on Beebe’s site (mikebeebe.com), “Why Mike Beebe will be a good Governor for Arkansas,” consists of four bullet points. Here are the first lines of each: • Mike Beebe is a consensus builder, who brings people together to get things done. • As Governor, Beebe will bring Democrats and Republicans and business and labor together to move Arkansas forward. • Mike Beebe believes that what has worked for some of us can work for all of us. • Mike Beebe believes in an Arkansas that can do better. Wait, don’t laugh. Beebe’s platform seems positively exhaustive compared to what Hutchinson offers on his website (asaforgovernor.com). Hutchinson’s most substantive written agenda is confined to this tagline at the end of his long biography: “Together, we can build a new era of opportunity through better jobs, better schools, better health care, and safer streets. We can build an era of opportunity for every Arkansan.” You might think I’m being unfair. Every politician seeks refuge in platitudes to avoid being cornered on an issue. Besides, it’s early! The general election doesn’t take place for another 13-1/2 months. That’s true. Beebe’s and Hutchinson’s evasiveness is understandable. But that doesn’t make it defensible, and it doesn’t mean it is good strategy, especially for Beebe. Both men are probably playing it safe. They don’t want to take any risks that could give their opponent fodder for an attack, especially when the only people paying attention right now are the political and media elites. But eventually they are going to have to take positions on the key issues. Why not get them out in the open now, when the fallout is easier to manage? Attention spans are short, and any immediate outrage can be mollified over time. This would work to Beebe’s advantage for a variety of reasons. First of all, the fact that he has never been in a contested campaign means he is relatively unknown, and fewer people in the state recognize his name than Hutchinson’s. Setting forth a strong policy agenda would help voters understand who he is and ensure that he defines himself, rather than waiting to be defined by attacks from his opponent. In a related sense, drawing lines in the sand puts his opponent on the defensive. Remember, Arkansas is still a Democratic state. Hutchinson is a right-wing conservative who lost both of his attempts to win a statewide election. Gov. Mike Huckabee is the only inarguably successful Republican to recently hold state office, and that is because he meticulously strikes a moderate tone on key issues like immigration, public education, taxes and social services. Of course, Beebe’s potential to make political gold out of policy depends on his willingness to stake out strong progressive positions. For instance, if he takes the Huckabee line on immigration, protecting access to health care, education and other social services for undocumented residents, will Hutchinson do the same? Not likely, considering that Hutchinson’s political base would be upset if he did. And there is no better way to expose the rift in the Republican Party that was painted over when Huckabee bit his lip and endorsed Hutchinson. By doing this early, Beebe would energize Democrats who are lukewarm about his candidacy. At the same time, he would force Hutchinson to choose between disappointing his most enthusiastic supporters or taking radical positions that will endanger his chances in the general election. And if Hutchinson doesn’t take the bait and continues to play coy, Beebe can paint him as an indecisive waffler. I haven’t even mentioned that laying out a policy agenda is simply the right thing to do as a matter of principle. These men have declared their candidacy for the highest executive office in the state. The least they could do is tell us what they plan to do if elected. Whoever takes the initiative and aggressively outlines a platform will immediately be viewed as a leader who is control of the campaign. The bold stroke is a better fit for Beebe, however, if he can present a moderate plan that forces Hutchinson to conform (which would make the Republican a copycat with a weakened base) or contrast (which would make him a radical non-contender). He who hesitates is lost. Carpe diem. Et cetera.

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