A week remains in what seems like the longest race for governor since we were a territory and still it is impossible to dispel the boredom. Why is that?
Maybe it is because from the outset fate seemed to have already settled the whole thing, even from the filing when neither Mike Beebe, the Democrat, nor Asa Hutchinson, the Republican, was challenged in his own party.
Beebe, who never had an opponent in a long electoral career as a state senator, has been planning for this day for 20 workmanlike years in the legislative vineyards and four as attorney general, and everyone in his party agreed that it was just his turn. Hutchinson has waged two other campaigns for statewide office just as dispiriting as this one and the closest he got was 10 percentage points behind the able but terminally dull Winston Bryant. He ran against Sen. Dale Bumpers 20 years ago and barely avoided getting trounced 2 to 1.
From the day in March that Hutchinson filed, this has looked like a reprise of the run against Bryant. Hutchinson had earned credits with the right wing by trying to oust President Clinton for his dalliance with a White House intern and he had a couple of jobs with President Bush that seemed kind of important. The party simply had no one else.
But it is not the sensation of fate alone that causes the unrelieved boredom. On the issues they choose to talk about, the differences between Beebe and Hutchinson are almost imperceptible. Everyone divines that Beebe is a middle-of-the-roader and Hutchinson an ultra-conservative and that they would probably govern that way, but the campaign barely distinguishes them. Neither wants to get more than a centimeter away from what they imagine is the median of public opinion on any topic.
Both try to make a big issue of repealing the sales tax on groceries although their positions are barely distinguishable. Hutchinson brushed the issue aside at first, saying it was not on his agenda, but jumped on it when Beebe said he would phase the tax out over several years to avoid a budget crisis in the next biennium. Hutchinson, who is used to the Washington way, where you do what is popular today and shrug off tomorrow, said he would do it all at once. As a congressman in 2001 Hutchinson followed Bush’s lead on huge tax cuts for the rich and helped add a trillion dollars to the national debt because the country could not pay for two endless wars without borrowing.
Education? Their stances are hardly different, although the little distinction was enough to cost Hutchinson the endorsement of his only natural champion in the media, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Both men are against more school consolidation. Hutchinson goes a little further and says he would relax the standards here and there for a tiny school that couldn’t meet them. In the next few years, that could help five or six little high schools avoid closing, as Paron had to do this year.
Hutchinson tried to make the difference the central issue in the campaign, thinking that the prospect of school closings would ignite a prairie fire across the Arkansas countryside. The vast majority of rural voters already live in consolidated school districts and the argument means nothing to them, but the issue left the state’s largest newspaper no choice because it had come around on consolidating small schools a couple of years ago.
The Democrat-Gazette’s medium-sized endorsement will produce no more votes for Beebe. An Arkansas Gazette editor once observed that the editorials were like peeing in a blue-serge suit: They gave the author a feeling of warmth and no one else noticed. But it is disheartening to the Hutchinson troops to lose their one true ideological friend in the media.
Like Republicans from George Bush down, Hutchinson seeks to make hay off popular bigotry against gays and lesbians. He will see to it that the legislature re-enacts unconstitutional rules against gay and lesbian couples serving as foster parents for abused and neglected children and he implies over and over that Beebe is soft on homosexuals. But Beebe stands right with him on foster parenting with the little caveat that he won’t sign a bill that is for certain unconstitutional.
The real difference is that you sense that Beebe’s heart just isn’t in it and Hutchinson’s is. But it is an important difference.
With Beebe there’s a hunch that he won’t do anything to disgrace us or to shock a humane conscience — unless he’s driven into a corner, and maybe not even then. With Hutchinson, that act would be his first resort, not his last.
If you can think about that hard enough, the prospect of voting will seem almost elevating.