Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Engaging in debate

Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson, the major party candidates for governor, engaged in the first debate of the season Monday night at Jonesboro, and our considered judgment is that the collective impact of the hour of boasts and jibes was exactly. . . zero.

All that Beebe needed to do as the seasoned officeholder with a sizable lead in the polls and a money advantage was to show that he was as knowledgeable and comfortable as the pundits have always described him, and he did. Hutchinson needed to land some big punches or wow people with his manner or his argumentation, and he did none of those things. But even if things were reversed, if Hutchinson had kept the audience spellbound and Beebe had floundered, it would have had little effect on an electorate that is still bored with this campaign. Not many people outside three or four northeast Arkansas counties could tune in if they had wanted.

This whole round of debates is not going to affect the election much. They will not be televised statewide, the two minor candidates are excluded, and they are not really debates but chances for the candidates to deliver their rehearsed charges and defenses. Even at that, we acknowledge that these face-to-face matches are healthy. They give us all a chance to judge the candidates in their realm, see what they are willing to say and thus take a measure of their character. You hope that the exchanges give you an idea of the policies they would pursue as governor and the face each would present to the country as the official vicar of our little state.

Beebe seemed to prevail in those comparisons, but probably because the contest was on his turf, state government. Hutchinson’s main line of attack was that Beebe, a state senator for many years before he became attorney general, was either negligent or ineffective in the legislature. He said Beebe did not sponsor legislation to repeal the sales tax on groceries and implied that he was not really for the repeal.

Beebe replied that the repeal had passed in the Senate three times with his help and that he had insisted as a Senate leader that the lone sponsor be Bud Canada, a Hot Springs senator who made repeal of the tax the great crusade of his entire political career. Beebe opposed repealing the tax when it was put to a vote of the people because revenues were tight and it would have forced a cut in services. Twice in the last 28 years voters have rejected proposals to repeal the grocery tax.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Hutchinson said, he consistently opposed taxes and voted in 2001 for George W. Bush’s tax cuts (targeted at the wealthy). Beebe, on the other hand, had supported tax increases as well as tax cuts, he said. Hutchinson suggested that you have to be consistent.

That afforded Beebe his finest moment. “There you go again,” he said, recalling a famous Ronald Reagan debating moment. “. . . In Arkansas you have to balance the budget. We can’t do what they do in Washington. We can’t put our obligations on the next generation. We have to pay for our programs. When you start cutting all this revenue you better make sure you have enough money for education.”

The tax cuts that Hutchinson supported helped reverse three years of balanced federal budgets and produce the biggest deficits in the nation’s history. Beebe had his bad moments. He keeps trying to make something of the fact that when Hutchinson took a job in the Department of Homeland Security he bought a home in suburban Virginia and moved his voting residence there, only to register again in Arkansas last year when he returned to run for governor.

Hutchinson wondered about the relevance of his voting moves and, of course, they are irrelevant. He is every much an Arkansan as Beebe.

If the candidates debate near you or you can access the exchange electronically, try to watch. It is not apt to entertain you but, as debates nearly always do, it will reinforce your inclinations. But that is good enough.