Circumstances put me next to Mike Beebe for lunch the other day.
You should know that he graciously roasted and toasted me at a function where I was given a very generous award.
He told the audience that he was close enough to the end of his political career to admit that he agreed with a lot of what I write. I told the group: “He likes me. I like him. So get over it.”
I’ll still blast him if he deserves it, which he currently doesn’t as best I can determine. And he’d still chew me out if he thought I deserved it, as he might after this column, though I doubt it.
I took the opportunity during private conversation to tell him what I had been pondering as a valedictory assessment of his soon-to-end governance of eight years.
He did not seem displeased or disagreeable—imagine that—when I asserted that his style of governing offered no less than a prototype for a way out of our national political dysfunction.
And he did not differ when I outlined for him how I viewed his style.
It was to believe in government. It was to pay for government efficiently and credibly. It was to forge consensus and cede due credit to the other side, such as on the private-option form of Medicaid expansion.
And it was to avoid as much as possible the divisive and stereotyping social issues of the culture war. Those merely marginalize a politician. They imperil a politician’s ability to perform in those areas of direct responsibility in the constructive way previously described.
Anyway, social and cultural change doesn’t come from politicians. It bubbles up from the people. It’s a product of a citizen movement, not of original political action.
It gets refereed and ultimately imposed by the courts. The politicians can never be counted on until the movement has succeeded and the courts have made the historic decisions.
The courts integrated the public schools. President Dwight Eisenhower said, oh, heck, I guess I’m going to have send troops to Little Rock, and I sure do dread it.
If all politicians would emulate Beebe and tend to the narrowly efficient performance of government through wise and inclusive leadership, and stay out of the gay-rights debate and away from the abortion issue whenever possible, then this kind of thing could well happen: Politicians could spend nearly eight years in office during which severance taxes could be raised and grocery taxes cut and health-care opportunities expanded and education improved and economic development pursued and budgets balanced, all of that amid the worst recession of our time.
During this same period, quite apart from those direct political and governmental roles, a citizens movement and the courts could advance gay rights to child adoption and perhaps marriage. And the people could take the state close to the inevitable legalization of marijuana if only for medicinal purposes.
If Beebe had vowed in his first inaugural address eight years ago to advance gay rights and marijuana legalization, then he would have set those causes back by prematurely inviting political backlash. And he would have rendered himself so limited in credibility and public backing that he couldn’t have accomplished many if any of those aforementioned governmental advances falling within his actual job description.
That’s not to imply that he supports gay-rights advancement or marijuana legalization.
I think he leans to the former but not the latter—yet.
But it doesn’t matter. That’s the point.
What matters is that he has governed competently with broad public support. What matters is that those other things get addressed by quite different methods having nothing to do with him.
The political activists of both sides accomplish nothing by insisting that politicians pledge allegiance to them. Their agendas will rise or fall from their own energy and on their own merit, and in the courts.
All they do by applying litmus tests to their preferred politicians is define those preferred politicians in ways that marginalize them and limit their effectiveness, and thus governmental effectiveness.
That Beebe declined to accede to the positions of a gay and lesbian group in his first run for governor, earning the group’s disdain, did not deter the movement’s remarkable gains during the period of his governorship.
So the activists of both sides in the culture war need to put aside their demands on the politicians—if, that is, good government is among their goals; if, that is, they can manage to make their savvy compartmentalizations.
I think that’s happening. I haven’t heard anybody in the gay and lesbian movement assail Mike Ross for cowardice for evading this raging same-sex marriage issue.
The matter will be decided by judges. There is no reason to engage in a peripheral electoral battle and help Asa Hutchinson get elected governor.
The more vexing problem for the emergence of the Beebe Prototype … that is money, of course.
National politicians need it, and a lot of it, in both direct and indirect forms, hard and soft and dark. And they tend to get much of it from their activists extracting allegiance on these politically polarizing social and cultural issues.
Beebe got elected governor before the dark-money era by locking down the state’s politician-underwriting business establishment—Wal-Mart, the state Chamber of Commerce, poultry, farm and utilities. He had forged those relationships over two decades as a leading state senator.
The best solution nationally is for the Citizens United ruling to be somehow repealed.
Failing that, the solution rests with the nation’s politically underwriting business establishment—meaning the elite and prominent men and women of high commerce who disdain government shutdowns and threats thereof and our nation’s general political inability to solve real problems and calm global economic nerves.
They could unite in the way the Arkansas business establishment united for Beebe.
They could form their own independent groups to spend big bucks to advance moderation and pragmatism and the candidates thereof. They could ante up for the real and better incarnation of “limited government.” They could invest in reason and effectiveness, leaving the culture war out of it.
How might that work? Here’s an example: The American Business Alliance for Competent Politicians Who Can and Will Govern (which, alas, doesn’t exist) could have anted up to promote and underwrite … let’s say, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a business Republican from Rogers with a record of running a city effectively, as a U.S. Senate candidate. That would have elevated Womack over a neophyte extremist and polarizer like Tom Cotton who casts impractical vote after impractical vote.
To summarize: You do government over here. You do social and cultural change over there. You travel parallel tracks to progress.
A postscript: I also predicted to Beebe that his imminent retirement to sip Cabernet Franc and play golf and enjoy the grandchildren—while immensely pleasurable—will not satisfy him altogether after 30 years of running Arkansas government. He will require some means of public policy engagement.
And what did he say to that? Nothing. Well, except this: “That’s what Ginger says.”
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.