Columns » Max Brantley

Room in the middle for Arkansas politicians?

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Recent events recommend former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross' plan to emulate Gov. Mike Beebe as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Moderation is appealing.

Examples of why:

• Republican Rep. Nate Bell of Mena made an ill-advised attempt to capitalize politically on the Boston manhunt for marathon bombing suspects. "I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine," Bell, a notorious gun nut, wrote on Twitter. A furious national backlash against Bell earned a non-apology from Bell, not for the content of his remark but for its timing.

• Chris Nogy, a member of the Benton County Republican Committee, set off another furor with his published letter in the county GOP's newsletter expressing outrage at Republican legislators who'd voted to implement Obamacare in Arkansas. Excerpt: "The 2nd amendment means nothing unless those in power believe you would have no problem simply walking up and shooting them if they got too far out of line and stopped responding as representatives." He and his wife, secretary of the county committee, did much more explaining, but little by way of pure apology. He "most likely" wouldn't shoot anyone, Nogy said in one clarification. His wife blamed the press for taking things out of context.

• You could write these incidents off as social media misjudgments by misfits. But one is a state legislator of some effectiveness. Another is a party official. They follow the well-publicized ranting last year of two then-Republican legislators, Rep. Jon Hubbard and Rep. Loy Mauch, and a former legislator, Charlie Fuqua. All barely lost races for the legislature after exposure for angry, extremist rhetoric.

The real news is the Republican Party's reluctance to blast such extremists. Typical was Rep. Charlie Collins who said that while he disagreed with Chris Nogy, he defended his First Amendment right to say what was on his mind. This sort of attitude takes you straight to a First Amendment defense for Hitler, Stalin and any number of other dangerous blowhards. Some things demand unalloyed repudiation.

The reason for timidity by party leaders is simple. Extremists are a significant part of the Republican base. Anger them and you might jeopardize your new legislative majority.

The Republican majority legislature has reflected that extremism. Implementation of Obamacare — even in a very Republican-friendly fashion — was an exception, though it cloaked a plan to decimate traditional Medicaid.

In everything else of substance, the political fringe ruled.

Republicans moved to make it harder for people to vote. They made it harder to circulate petitions to address government. While such essential constitutional rights were being abridged, the gun was being elevated to holiness. Failure of an open-carry bill was a rare defeat for the gun lobby.

Taxes were cut for the very richest of Arkansans. Poor working people got barely a sop, plus they face new indignities such as drug testing if they find themselves in need of unemployment insurance or government medical help. Women lost medical rights. Sexual minorities were trashed. Environmental and land use regulation was under constant assault.

Arkansas law already tilted heavily in favor of these conservative preferences. Maintaining the status quo — which Gov. Mike Beebe clearly would have preferred if he only had the votes — would hardly have been liberal.

Mike Ross' promise to take a similar outlook — and to try to elect some Democratic representatives who agree with him — is hopeful.

Is Ross' political antenna well-tuned to the electorate's presumed moderation? What if Republican leaders reluctant to repudiate the most unhinged in their ranks are right? What if the fringe is actually Arkansas mainstream? A lot of us might need bullet-proof vests.

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