Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Brothers or enemies

The Arkansas Times blog raised an intriguing question this week. How long can Gov. Huckabee hold out before he endorses Democrat Mike Beebe over Asa Hutchinson in the governor’s race?

It is a facetious question. We know that. Mike Huckabee is a loyal Republican and he is going to support the Republican nominee, any Republican nominee, particularly now that he hopes to be the party’s nominee for president. When you seek the highest office, you have to stand shoulder to shoulder with every strange critter who bears the party’s mantle, Jim Holt this year, maybe Jim Johnson next year.

Besides, Huckabee has already embraced Hutch-inson, a fellow Republican with whom he has never shared much warmth, and, like a good Republican should, he betrayed no lack of ardor for him. But the question raises an unarguable point: On issues of substance, Huckabee stands much closer to Beebe than to Hutchinson, although all three men would fudge that point if you asked them.

Go down the list. Hutchinson and the Republican Party office characterize Beebe as a lifelong government activist and technician, a supporter of higher taxes (including those backed by Gov. Huckabee). While profiling himself as a small-government conservative, Huckabee has expanded government more than any governor in modern times, usually with Mike Beebe’s connivance.

Remember the governor’s signature program, the great expansion of Medicaid to children of low-income parents in 1997, ArKids First? It is Huckabee’s proudest achievement and the predicate of a blooming political career that builds on his leadership on health issues.

ArKids First was a bill sponsored by state Sen. Mike Beebe. Huckabee’s big highway program owed much to the legerdemain of Beebe in the legislative halls. So did his other big health initiative, the CHART plan for using tobacco settlement proceeds. Asa Hutchinson, you must presume, would not have fathered any of those programs nor, if he had he been in the legislature, would he have backed them. At least those seem not to be in sync with his approach to government.

That brings us to the big issue of the governor’s campaign, tiny schools. Though neither will say it, Huckabee and Hutchinson stand about as far apart as you can get. Huckabee, in a dramatic turnaround from his first campaigns for office, wants to consolidate all school districts with fewer than 1,500 students. He doesn’t fudge about it. He would close very small high schools because they cannot efficiently deliver the comprehensive educational programs children need in the 21st century.

Beebe would not go nearly so far, but he at least agrees with Huckabee that every school, including the smallest, should adhere to the state’s very modest standards. He would create no exceptions. Hutchinson’s ambitions rest on stirring people in the countryside to believe that government and people in cities are out to destroy their way of life by closing tiny rural high schools, a couple of dozen of which are in jeopardy the next few years. Hutchinson said last week that he would relax the standards to give the people who run tiny high schools leeway so they would not have to comply completely.

He is not happy with the state Board of Education that Huckabee appointed and that does his bidding. He would balkanize the board so that one of the nine would be there to look out for tiny rural schools. It was an empty gesture. If Hutchinson is elected, he can over time appoint all nine board members from Paron, Bodcaw, Alread and Birdeye. From Huckabee’s point of view, Hutchinson would like to undo almost everything he did in 10 years.