You have to feel a little sorry for the Arkansas Republican Party. After a lifetime of haplessness nearly unrivaled among state political parties in the United States, it is now in the midst of its first legitimate run for control of the state legislature since Reconstruction. Last Thursday, the state House Republican Caucus announced its policy agenda if it gains control. The "SIMPLE Plan" is meant to do for the historically disempowered party what the "Contract with America" did for U.S. House Republicans in the 1994 election cycle. A few hours later, however, a State Police report about a weekend motorcycle accident went public and Arkansas — "a tailgate party masquerading as a state," in the telling words of John Brummett — went off its collective rocker. The big media hit that the SIMPLE Plan was meant to produce ended up on page 2B of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The state GOP was lucky, however, that the SIMPLE Plan did not come in for the closer scrutiny that would have accompanied page 1 coverage. The plan, obviously drafted by apostles of ALEC (the Washington, D.C.-based, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council), lacks the conservative populist appeal that is the route to electoral success in Arkansas for Republicans.
The excellent AP reporter Andrew DeMillo examined this weekend whether Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller — evoked by GOP party leaders last Thursday in announcing the plan — would be welcome in today's Arkansas GOP. Party chair Doyle Webb hem-hawed a response to the question, whose clear answer is "No." What should be a real wake-up call to the state party is that the record of the most recent Republican governor, Mike Huckabee, a conservative populist who showed Republicans how to win Arkansas elections in the modern era, is also inconsistent with the strictures of the SIMPLE Plan.
In the midst of the post-9/11 recession, the pre-radio talk show Huckabee supported a surcharge on the taxes of highest earning Arkansans rather than cut fundamental governmental services. The SIMPLE Plan has as its first two elements capping state spending and cutting income taxes. While GOP governors in surrounding states slashed Medicaid, Huckabee fought to maintain a robust set of Medicaid-funded services; the SIMPLE Plan rails against such "large government programs" in advocating a "free-market"-based (read greatly reduced) Medicaid program. Most fundamentally, Huckabee led the charge for a constitutionally adequate public school system in Arkansas following the landmark Lake View decision; the SIMPLE Plan follows the ALEC party line of wholesale rejection of traditional public schools, including the adoption of private school vouchers in a state where barely 5 percent of K-12 students attend private schools.
In short, the SIMPLE Plan offers a cookie-cutter approach driven by conservative think-tank ideology, rather than the pragmatic approach to governance required in a state where the voters believe that government has a role in providing services such as health care and education. While the SIMPLE Plan may be great in firing up the Republican base that base composes less than a third of the Arkansas electorate.
Moreover, on the issues highlighted in the SIMPLE Plan, Beebe-era Arkansas Democrats are on solid turf. With biennial grocery tax cuts and consistent budget surpluses throughout the Great Recession, Beebe's management of government has shown that gimmicks like "performance-based budgeting" are not needed for a competent management of a government that protects vital state services and ensures nationally recognized educational progress. Beebe has not had success in inserting himself into individual legislative races to save Democratic seats in recent years, but a GOP attempt to make the election about statewide issues in fact makes the election about Beebe, the most popular governor in America, whose defense of his record can only help Democrats across the state. Arkansas Republicans would be better served by following the method of the pragmatic Huckabee and appealing to Arkansas's populist voters district by district, rather than picking a fight with the governor through this simplistic, overly ideological plan cooked up in Washington.