Memo to Jason Willett:
Congratulations on becoming chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. You ran an aggressive campaign promising change and dynamic leadership. Both are sorely needed. The party currently resembles a beat-up pickup truck — a 1986 Clinton-Bumpers-Pryor — that is on its last legs. Everyone loves that truck, and it has taken us everywhere we wanted to go, but one day it is going to stop running.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have been building momentum. In the last decade they have gained the top two executive offices, won and lost their first U.S. Senate seat since Reconstruction, and increased their representation in the state legislature.
Arkansas Democrats need to define who they are and what they stand for. It’s not enough to say: We go to church, too! We don’t like abortion or gay marriage, either!
If the Democratic Party doesn’t get serious about declaring its own agenda and outlining the issues that it is passionate about — as the Republicans have done successfully — it is quickly going to become irrelevant.
Which is why you need to recruit someone to run against Attorney General Mike Beebe in the next Democratic gubernatorial primary.
I’m not saying that Beebe is not the best candidate we can offer. When it comes to state government, there is no one more knowledgable, experienced, or able. He would make a fine governor.
But first he has to win a general election, and that contest promises to be tough. The Republicans already have a blockbuster primary card: Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller versus Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman and Homeland Security undersecretary.
Those are two of the biggest political names in the state. Ask anyone on the street if those names sound familiar. Then ask that person about Beebe. You will find he starts with a major disadvantage when it comes to name recognition, especially compared against either of his possible Republican opponents.
And that deficiency is only going to get worse if Beebe is sitting on the sidelines while Rockefeller and Hutchinson battle it out. They will be receiving lots of coverage in the media as they campaign throughout the state. Their campaign advertisements will be broadcast on television and radio, and they will mail literature to potential voters. Meanwhile, Beebe will speak to civic clubs and Democratic Party gatherings, but without any drama or competition, who else will pay any attention?
You might contend that Rockefeller and Hutchinson will bloody each other up, leaving the primary victor in a weakened state to face Beebe, who will seem like a statesman above the fray. I disagree. Whoever wins the Republican primary will emerge stronger from the struggle. He will be battle-tested and energized, with the full force of the party’s money machine — national and statewide — behind him.
Which brings up another crucial point. In his entire 20-year political career, Beebe has never faced an opponent. He is a savvy and smart politician, but there are some things that can only be learned through experience.
While he may have been attacked by legislative opponents during his time in the state Senate, for instance, he has never endured the kind of intense personal assaults that typify a generously financed campaign for high elective office. Does he have the tough skin necessary to handle that? In the heat of the moment, in critical pressure-filled situations that require immediate response, it helps to be able to refer to lessons from the past. Otherwise, his first mistake could be his last.
With that in mind, find Beebe a sparring partner for the primary. Someone who can make the easy and obvious charges against his legislative record, so that they will be old news by the time the Republican nominee trots them out. Beebe can sharpen his policy positions and practice his debating skills, thereby figuring out which lines stand up under scrutiny and which lines fall flat. Plus the media coverage of a competitive race would help boost his name recognition.
Best of all, a primary contest would invigorate the party. Remember the heyday of the Democratic Party, roughly 1970-1990? The energy and passion of the party were reflected in its primaries, which were often crowded with compelling personalities. In contrast, the Republican Party could barely scratch up someone to run.
Now the tables have turned. If you think Beebe can make himself known to Arkansans and handle his first political opponent in the six months between May and November, leave the situation alone. But I would argue that the direction of the Democratic Party has been left alone long enough, and you need to take bold action to ensure it moves forward in the years ahead.