The annual Clark County Democratic Clinton Day Dinner is a pretty big event, certainly by contemporary Arkansas Democratic standards.
Put on by fine and dedicated people, it routinely draws 300 or so from throughout Southwest Arkansas to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.
Except for the metaphorical richness that I can't resist, I would not tell readers about the awkward if comical moment at the dinner Saturday night.
That was when everyone rose to say the pledge of allegiance and there was no flag.
Actually, there were plenty of flags. Every table's centerpiece contained little ones.
To complete the metaphorical richness, embattled state Democratic chairman Michael John Gray--after a week of getting hammered by a blogger and then on the newspaper's front page to the point that his competence and continued service were put in question--hurried to the rescue to present one of the little centerpiece flags to the pledge leader.
You ask: What did that little flag snafu represent metaphorically? It represented a state Democratic Party beset by ineptness with the state chairman prominently in the middle of it all.
Gray later delivered, as his state chairman's address, a too-long if mildly rousing progressive manifesto. Then the keynoter, state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, the liberal lion of Arkansas, gave an engaging and commendable speech except that I didn't buy a lot of it.
Well, to be precise, I bought most of it in terms of broad principle; I just don't think it remotely outlined a winning formula for Arkansas.
To be fair, I don't know if anything would outline currently a winning formula for Democrats in Arkansas.
Two general points on the state party controversy:
First, it appears that certain old party regulars and detractors of Gray have sicced on him the Blue Hog Report, lawyer-blogger Matt Campbell, who is a knowledgeable, serious, tough, thorough, commanding and effective force. You don't want him after you. The Blue Hog has outlined assorted financial peculiarities that command an independent audit, which apparently is coming. The blog even raised personal behavioral issues about Gray with photos or videos from the chairman's early morning visit to a drinking establishment months ago.
Second, none of that makes much of a darn to me. I've been covering Arkansas Democratic politics for decades, and this is at least the third time financial mismanagement has been injected as an issue. They're frequently alleged to be broke or financially irresponsible over there at state Democratic headquarters.
It's not taxpayers' money. It's partisans' money. It needs to be spent legally and accountably, of course. But political party mismanagement is a political party's problem.
Party organizations simply don't matter much, especially in Arkansas. One-party Democratic rule of Arkansas was not the work of an organized party. Good politicians and a static culture were. The Republican revolution was not the work of the state party, but of ... well, fear or resentment of Barack Obama, mainly.
I don't think of the state Democratic chairman--or of any state Democratic chairman--as a legitimate public figure whose beer-joint deportment is worthy of much note.
The best summation was provided by former state Democratic chairman Will Bond. He told this newspaper that he didn't know anyone who'd been chairman who wasn't delighted to become former chairman.
So let me tell you the state Democrats' problem--the more general one than these weary specific ones of whether the accounting adds up and where Chairman Gray might have been and what he might have been up to at 1 a.m. one Sunday.
It occurred to me during both speeches, Gray's and then Elliott's.
Gray was saying that when the Republicans call Democrats socialists, Democrats should answer by saying they believe the government can give a hand up.
He then offered the sweetest parable: His 4-year-old boy was throwing a basketball against a barn door, banging it over and over, unable to get anywhere near the 9-foot goal above the door. So, Michael John lifted his son entirely over his head and let him shoot from close range and make a goal. Michael John went back to whatever he was doing, but noticed he wasn't hearing the sound of the ball against the door. He went to check, and his boy was piling items to crawl upon to get closer to the hoop.
You see? Compassionate help was offered. The young man learned from the help and came to help himself. That's the Democratic method. You see.
I happen to know the easy Republican response; I am, in fact, expert on Republican responses, fielding them pretty much on the hour.
It's that the little tyke must be a Republican, helping himself that way rather than conditioning himself into Democratic dependency, into waiting for Daddy to come around as Daddy always will and lift him every time.
Elliott said a lot of fine things, but I was struck by two I rejected.
One was that she doesn't buy any longer the conventional notion that each generation should do better economically than the one before. That cycle uses up precious resources, she said. It ought to be good enough to do as well, she said. We need to be thinking about things we can do without, rather than things we want to acquire.
Responsibility to the planet notwithstanding, doing better economically is not a message Democrats ought to cede to the Republicans. Going into South Arkansas and chanting, "Keep your bank account balance the same as your parents' with the Democrats," or singing, "Same ol' days are here again" ... well, I'd suggest Democrats test that in a focus group before taking it on the road.
The right message is that we need to preserve resources to save the planet, but that we can make more money in the process thanks to new business ventures and the efficiencies and innovations of technology.
That's a true message. My quality of life grows daily as I use my phone for Google searches--on how to fix something myself, or where to find something, or how to buy something conveniently. Instant digital information is a moneymaker, and no tree is harmed, or fossil fuel extracted.
I understand that Senator Elliott was doing what true progressives and Democratic keynoters must do. She was giving a pep talk when she said Democrats can succeed if not mired in defeatism. She said there are still more Democrats in Arkansas than Republicans.
That's not so. Most Arkansas polls' demographic breakdowns show--and I'm rounding here--about a third of the people identifying as Democrats, a third as Republicans and a third as independents.
The key question, then, is asked of the third identifying as independents. It's whether those voters lean more to the Republicans or the Democrats. By about 2-to-1, those who admit to leaning do so to the Republicans.
A third of the electorate and a fourth of another third--that math doesn't work for Democrats.
Without the message or the math, you could have utter efficiency and tranquility at state headquarters and still lose 60-40.
You can be right on guns, on a woman's right to choose, on Medicaid work requirements and on health care in general--as Democrats are--but you'll lose in Arkansas until and unless the state transforms or your candidates find their own ways to make a transcendent connection.
Dale Bumpers didn't rise from nowhere to the governorship through the state party apparatus, but in spite of it. Donald Trump didn't become president through the Republican apparatus, but by ridiculing and rebuffing it. Bernie Sanders didn't fill arenas with a message formulated by the Democratic National Committee, but one abhorred by the DNC. Elizabeth Warren may be about to catch Joe Biden in Iowa because she has her own message and although Joe is the anointed one of the official party apparatus.
I'm going to talk to Bubba McCoy about these things. Maybe he has some ideas on how an Arkansas Democrat could come on to his car lot and make a sales pitch transcending the wedge issues.
I suspect straight-on truth and common sense will be at the root of it. And I suspect that any talk about the financial or personal goings-on at state headquarters will bore him back to sleep in the recliner.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
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