The emerging story line of the 2014 Arkansas elections is a high-minded debate over whether government, even effective government, is a good thing.
Democrats are lining up candidates for high office who claim to have made government work for people. They will rally under the banner of Governor Beebe, who has made it clear that while he will not be on the ballot he will lend his aura to the candidates. His poll numbers reflect a public belief that he is an unusually efficient chief executive.
Ideally, their opponents will be, like Rep. Top Cotton, of the ascendant tea-party variety, who believe government is essentially bad, especially effective government, which limits people's choices about the fuels they burn and the amount of protection they need in their food, medicines, health insurance, workplace and environment.
Democrats probably would win such an election, good evidence of it being the harsh public reaction to even limited government shutdowns.
Alas, the worth of effective government will not be the issue of the campaigns, unless you count as the sole measure of it the Affordable Care Act. It will be the burning issue of most big campaigns, regardless of when the Obama administration fixes the Internet portal where people buy their insurance. It has been the issue since 2010 and will not subside as the issue until 2016, when it will be at close to full implementation.
But effective government is the Democrats' best argument for regaining the momentum, if they can make the case for it. Most Arkansans have had a reflexively dim view of government since January 2009, when the black man with the Asian name became head of the national government.
The national prints have lionized Beebe for six years because Arkansas avoided the collapse that the recession of 2007-09 inflicted on other states, he got a Republican legislature to implement the most important part of Obamacare and he retains the trust of most of the electorate after 11 years in statewide office. So Beebe seeks to pass on that trust to the Democratic candidate for governor, former congressman Mike Ross, his acolyte as a state senator, who says he will govern exactly like Beebe.
But is he a chip off the old block? No one ever took office who had Beebe's grasp of political forces and legislative dynamics. He has never attempted a meaningful initiative that he was not quite sure he could achieve, so he has no record of failure and no legacy of dashed hopes.
Mike Ross has been similarly cautious, rarely casting a vote that carried much risk in a conservative rural district, either in the legislature or Congress. He voted for a big expansion of Medicaid in the legislature in 1997 — Sen. Beebe sponsored the bill for Gov. Mike Huckabee — and while Ross championed universal health insurance in Congress he voted against the two versions of the Affordable Care Act that went before the House in 2009 and 2010, including the one that became law, explaining that this was what his constituents wanted him to do.
He will be hammered for a procedural vote that allowed the majority of the House that favored the health bill to actually vote on it. His defense, if he chooses, can be that he believed in majority rule even when he was in the minority and that, besides, the House bill was better than the Senate version that became Obamacare. It would have given people the option of buying a government-crafted health plan, which would have driven down insurance premiums across the board and insured six million more people.
Sen. Mark Pryor's case for re-election is that, nearly alone in the U.S. Senate, he tried to bridge the gulf between the parties and make Congress work. He is blessed by the perfect opponent, Tom Cotton. While saying occasionally he didn't want a government shutdown or debt default, Cotton worked hard to achieve them. Cotton's team will be photoshopping Barack Obama's arm around Pryor, not his friend Mike Beebe's. Pryor voted for Obamacare and he has not been Obama's permanent enemy, which may be all that counts in Arkansas.
For the debate on good government, Democrats have the perfect candidate in the Fourth District, James Lee Witt, who became the poster boy for able government when he headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency for President Clinton. Under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, FEMA had been a shelter for inept men who were owed political favors, and every natural disaster exposed it. Praised by Republicans and state officials for FEMA's quick response to hurricanes, tornadoes and Midwestern floods, Witt was the Clinton administration's star.
But Witt will be crucified for, of all things, making a lot of money as a businessman when he was called upon as a consultant to take over the management of the Katrina hurricane devastation from the FEMA of President George W. Bush, who had put a rodeo promoter in charge and emptied it of disaster-relief professionals.
In the Second District, the Democrats offer Patrick Henry Hays, "Arkansas's mayor," who has a better claim on such an epithet than Rudy Giuliani. Hays turned North Little Rock from a moribund, scruffy suburb into a city with more reliable municipal services than its big brother across the river. You would think those are better credentials than 15 years as a trickster in your party's political boiler rooms, which is what the current congressman brought to the job.
But that is if Democrats get that high-minded debate about all that is good or bad about government. It happens in civics classes, not in realpolitik warfare, where it is only Obama and Obamacare around the clock.