Leader Blues

Saturday, October 21, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Debates over, so you decide

The televised debates among the statewide candidates have come to a close, making hardly a ripple in the opinion polls since the debates were followed mostly by political junkies who made up their minds long ago.

Tuesday’s debate between Attorney General Mike Beebe, the Democratic candidate for governor, and Asa Hutchinson, his Republican opponent, was more spirited than most of the televised slugfests.

Hutchinson, who’s behind in the polls, hit Beebe at his most vulnerable — illegal immigrants and social issues important to conservatives — but this year’s elections are more a referendum on the Bush administration and less on so-called hot-button issues that made a difference in the past.

The other day, we noticed a yard sign for Jim Holt, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and it played up his pro-life stance, but even Holt spends little time talking about abortion and hammers away at illegals in Arkansas — which is speaking volumes about Gov. Huckabee, a fellow Republican who is not at all concerned about illegal immigation.

But the issue could propel him into office, even if there’s not much Holt can do about the problem.

Watching a debate between candidates for lieutenant governor requires a willing suspension of disbelief. These guys cannot be running for lieutenant governor but for governor, at least, or president.

Bill Halter, the Democrat, and state Sen. Jim Holt, the Republican, consumed an hour of public television time promising bold action to solve the state’s manifold problems if voters give them the chance by electing them lieutenant governor.

It was livelier and more pointed than the deadly gubernatorial debates. Holt is going to cut taxes, reduce government spending and send illegal immigrants back to their native countries. Halter is going to “improve education from pre-kindergarten to graduate school” with a comprehensive education program, which includes a little extra cash from a state lottery.

You wonder momentarily: Has the state Constitution been amended or reinterpreted to invest the lieutenant governor with heretofore unmentionable powers? No, it hasn’t.

The Constitution gives the lieutenant governor two functions, and from the office’s beginning in 1927 until now the occupant has never exercised any other power.

He is to preside over sessions of the Senate when he wants to, and if the governor goes out of state or becomes so disabled that he cannot function he is to be the acting governor until the real governor comes home or his disability ends. And while he presides over the Senate he is expected to be an impartial servant of the senators.

He should not be taking sides, making speeches advocating some action on bills that are before the Senate or pushing his own program.

It would be entirely legal for him to do any of those things — the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the speech of lieutenant governors, too — but it would violate the courtesy of senators, who would in short order curtail the lieutenant governor’s prerogatives. Already, as it happens, there is talk of amending the Constitution to abolish the office and let the senators choose their own presiding officer, as the House of Representatives does. Halter and Holt repeat the refrain from many previous lieutenant governor campaigns that they will go out and recruit industry for Arkansas. It is the only plausible way to embroider on the narrow constitutional powers that the office has.

But no lieutenant governor has ever actually done that, not even the late beloved Win Paul Rockefeller. He wanted to and tried to, but industrial recruitment is the job of professionals in the state agency with a multimillion-dollar appropriation to do it.
If political clout is needed, only the governor can deliver that. So is all of Halter’s and Holt’s posturing pointless? Not if they were candid about it. There is a remote chance that the winner will become governor if the governor should die, resign or be removed from office with a long time left in his term.

It has happened three times in 80 years. Voters need to know something about the philosophy and leadership potential of the person who is a heartbeat away from governor. It would be refreshing if the candidates put their ideas into that context.
Even without that candor, the candidates make that choice easy for voters. Holt acknowledged in the debate that he was a pariah in the Senate, even among members of his own party. Gov. Huckabee, the titular head of his party, found his ideas revolting and said worse of him than he ever did a Democrat. Holt chalked it up to his own independence and stern principle.

But if senators absolutely don’t want him, how good a governor could he be if the job was thrust upon him or, for that matter, what kind of lieutenant governor?