Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

EDITORIAL>>One more look back

Leader editorial writer

A peripatetic columnist returns from Europe to assess the electoral damage: All politics is local, the proverb goes, but in some elections a universal spirit guides the result from sea to sea. The 2006 election was one of those, which may be some consolation to the Arkansas Republican Party, which was crushed Nov. 7 about as thoroughly as a party can be crushed. It can say, rightly we think, that it would have done a little better except for a national tide of discontent.

No Republican came close to election for any statewide office or to challenging a Democratic congressman. The only Repub-lican victor was John Boozman, the plodding congressman from the Republican-safe Third District, whose unknown and unfunded Democratic foe was ignored by his own party. Boozman’s opponent, someone named Anderson, got a surprisingly large vote. Finally, the GOP went backwards in its long, slow drive to achieve parity in the Arkansas legislature. But it had not made much progress there since 2000.

President Bush and the corruption-soaked Republican Congress are not altogether to blame for the Arkansas defeats, as the party’s losing candidate for governor, Asa Hutchinson, acknowledged after he was clobbered. He chalked it up to effective Democratic candidates, especially his own foe, Attorney General Mike Beebe. But the Re-publicans cannot escape ac-countability for the poverty of its offerings. The Republican candidates for the three top Arkansas offices — governor, attorney general and lieutenant governor — were so extreme and divisive that the reflexively Republican and conservative Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had to en-dorse their Democratic foes, although the endorsements seemed to stick in the editors’ throats. The newspaper couldn’t stomach the Republican challengers for Congress either. The single candidate for major office, other than Boozman, who found the newspaper’s favor was the Baptist preacher who was running for secretary of state against Charlie Daniels, who is widely accused of using the office to keep his family off the dole. But that candidate, who was caught lying in the biggest ploy of his campaign, lost worse than the rest. We extend our heartfelt condolences to our colleagues, the inky wretches in the Democrat Gazette’s editorial tower.

Clint Reed, the executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party and its answer to Karl Rove, subtly acknowledged the awful truth in his confidential day-after analysis sent to loyalists. “. . .We must listen to the message that the voters sent and provide real reform within our party,” he wrote. “We must be an inclusive party that is not relegated to fractional or regional ideologues.” Wow, take that Jim Holt, Asa Hutchinson and Gunner DeLay! That is from your own party boss.

The Republican Party after 10 years with Gov. Mike Huckabee at the helm of government failed to develop a farm team that could compete against even a workmanlike but uninspiring bunch of Democrats, and, as much as an amorphous organization like a political party can, it must try to determine why. But that is not the whole story. President Bush and the Congress did incalculable damage to the Republican Party in six short years by raising doubts about its inherent competence at governing and its fidelity to the old Republican principles of dispassionate, moderate, frugal, businesslike governance.

It was not merely a sudden discomfort with having gone to war in two Middle East countries but a sense — no, a conviction — that the administration had bungled everything about the wars very badly. It was reinforced by the ineptness of government’s response to hurricanes and to a score of other events: haphazard regulation of oil and other energy interests, the rising culture of corporate corruption under the umbrella of a government that went out of its way to demonstrate its business friendliness, the laissez-faire attitude toward war profiteering, and the failed delivery on promises that a series of tax cuts for corporations and the rich would produce even bigger budget surpluses than were run up by Bill Clinton and a surge of job creation unparalleled in history. On the latter, the results were exactly the opposite.

The election also reflected a growing alarm in the old Repub-lican constituency with the party’s absorption with religious fundamentalism. It has been 15 years since the party reached out to religious conservatives, and they unquestionably gave Re-publicans unmatched energy and zeal. But that became the party’s base, and under Karl Rove satisfying that base was the first and last resort.

Across the Midwest and parts of the West, there has been a growing disillusionment with the party’s dominance by that group. In Alf Landon’s and William Allen White’s Kansas, once the most reliably Republican state in the union, Republicans have been switching parties or declaring as independents, and Democrats have begun an ascendance. Across the West, abortion and anti-gay initiatives often went down to defeat and Democrats won in formerly solid Republican precincts. Only Wyoming and Utah seemed seemed largely untouched.

In the fiercely independent mountain states, they don’t like government intrusion, even to impose religious doctrines, and they don’t want to substitute the Book of Leviticus for the Bill of Rights. There is a little of that discontent here in the South, too, as the results Tuesday indicated. Every generation or so, a cataclysmic election forces one party or the other to recast itself. The Republicans began that process Wednesday, if not before, and it is an unalloyed good thing for the country and Arkansas.