Mike Beebe flew around the state last Tuesday to announce his candidacy for governor, and he gave the same speech everywhere he went.
A guy who has been thinking about running for an office for over 20 years — and who will be in a contested race for the first time — probably puts a lot of careful thought into the first words of his campaign.
Indeed, reading the text of his speech (available on his campaign website, mikebeebe.com), one will find a blueprint of the themes and issues he will emphasize for the next 17 months.
The key to his approach is balance. Because he does not have a primary opponent, Beebe can already run a general election campaign, seizing the middle ground by appealing to both Democrats and Republicans.
He does this explicitly in the speech when he says, “I believe that neither political party has a monopoly on the truth. I believe that both Democrats and Republicans have good ideas and that our challenge is to take the best of what works and make it available to all the people of our state.”
But he also does it implicitly, and more subtly, in several other passages.
For instance, when talking about economic development, he begins by saying, “Certainly, the Wal-Marts, the J.B. Hunts, the Tysons are examples of the entrepreneurial spirit that exists here.”
The coded message there is: I am not a typical knee-jerk, anti-big business liberal, and to prove it, I will say nice things about Wal-Mart in front of a Democratic audience.
That is a smart move strategically, because traditional economic conservatives will likely be ignored by the Republican gubernatorial candidates as they pander to the right-wing social ideologues who will decide that primary. If Beebe can get the political and financial support of the business community early by presenting himself as a stable pro-business moderate, he will erode the base that any Republican would need to win a statewide election.
Of course, this kind of talk really upsets the Democratic Party faithful, who view it as selling out. Beebe can’t afford to make them too mad, because even though he doesn’t have a primary opponent, there will be two liberal candidates in the general election: an independent and a Green Party nominee. Plus he has to worry about losing some normally reliable black votes if Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller is his Republican counterpart.
So, Beebe stresses his humble beginnings, “raised by a single parent on what some would call the wrong side of the tracks.” He further empathizes with the poor, talking about a girl with a “tummyache … because she did not have anything to eat last night” and a recent high school graduate who can’t go to college because “his family can’t afford to pay tuition and no jobs are available.” This is how Beebe reminds Democrats that he is one of them.
As it happens, the founder and head of the Democratic Leadership Council, Al From, was in Little Rock the day after Beebe’s announcement. The DLC advocates the kind of moderate, expedient approach to governing exemplified by Bill Clinton, who chaired the DLC before he was elected president.
Beebe attended a lunch with From that was hosted by former U.S. Sen. David Pryor. According to From, Beebe has been involved with the DLC “for a long time,” and that relationship clearly influenced Beebe’s rhetoric.
From says that Democrats have to “neutralize” the cultural issues so that people will listen to their messages on topics like education, health care, and the economy. In other words, a candidate like Beebe needs to reassure voters that he is in the mainstream on religion and other social touchstones so that he won’t have to spend the whole campaign defending himself on those fronts.
Sure enough, Beebe absorbed this advice, and it turns out to be the most elegant turn of his speech. Instead of a blatant testimony to his “faith” or some contrived show of his religious piety, Beebe concludes his address by quoting John F. Kennedy:
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
It’s a message that rings true: Working to improve the state — especially by fighting poverty and increasing opportunities for people to make their lives better — is literally doing the Lord’s work.
Therefore, with his first words as a candidate, Beebe seems to have carved out a strong foundation for his campaign, capitalizing on themes that appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate. The strategy depends on the Republicans bending over backwards to please their radically conservative base, thereby ignoring the majority of voters that Beebe will be cultivating the whole time. The eventual Republican nominee would be effectively marginalized by going so far out on the right.
That seems like a safe bet to me.