During his eight years as Arkansas’ chief executive, Mike Beebe has seen his party lose ground time and again. Five out of the six members of the Arkansas congressional delegation were Democrats when Beebe took office in 2006. Today, five out of six are Republicans.
Barack Obama lost Arkansas in 2008 by 20%, a margin that increased to 24% in 2012. The GOP now has control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in over a century. Meanwhile, Beebe’s tenure in office has taken place against a bleak national backdrop of financial crisis and recession, political polarization and near-complete gridlock at the federal level.
And yet, if Beebe could run for a third term in 2014, it’s a virtual certainty he would win. Early last year, an analysis on a blog kept by national pollster Nate Silver showed Beebe was the second most popular governor in the nation. A poll performed by the University of Arkansas last October showed 68% of likely voters approved of his performance. Talk Business and Hendrix College surveys have reported Beebe’s popularity in the 60% and 70% range throughout his governorship.
How has he done it?
It’s partly his sheer skill in negotiating the weakening political center, undoubtedly, and partly a matter of good timing. But underlying Beebe’s achievements are three properties without which his brand of pragmatic centrism might well have failed to achieve results in either elections or governance: a complex relationship with the state legislature, a shrewdly narrow approach to the business of policy, and an unwavering focus on Arkansas affairs as opposed to national ones.
AN ADVANTAGE OF EXPERIENCE
“My success is based upon a willingness to sit down and listen and work with [others] rather than just jump up and say it’s my way or the highway,” said Beebe in a morning interview for Talk Business Arkansas shortly before the 2014 fiscal session began. The governor wasn’t talking about the struggles between the two parties, but between the legislative branch and the executive.
Beebe spent two decades as the state Senator from Searcy, half of it under the long reign of Bill Clinton. As he built his law practice back home in the off months, the legislative sessions educated him on public policy and gave him a deep understanding of the fiscal machinery of the state. The Senate that Beebe knew as a legislator has been transformed today – by term limits, by the ascent of the GOP – but, he says, there are more fundamental truths about the job that haven’t changed.
“Here’s the deal about being a legislator. You worry not so much about the big picture. Your focus is more parochial. Your focus is more district oriented, your focus is more narrowed to one or two areas you have a major interest in or a major reason to be involved in. You don’t have time to be everything to everybody.”
Although that’s not a bad thing, he emphasized, it’s in stark contrast to his responsibilities as governor.
“The main difference between the two [jobs] is the global reach of the governor’s office and the big picture that permeates everything you do, every decision you make. I have to look at the big picture every minute, every second – because all the pieces fit together.” And yet, he said, it’s essential that a governor exercise leadership “in a way that involves an understanding and some empathy with the issues and the problems that legislators have to face.”
If his previous life of 20 years in the Senate gave Beebe a valuable respect for the function of the legislature, it also provided him with a more pointed political tool: a tremendous amount of knowledge in a body whose high turnover creates a chronic experience deficit.
Beebe came into the governor’s office at a time when term limits were stripping the Capitol of many members who had been around since the early nineties. That has given him a unique leverage among newcomers to the General Assembly, who struggle to navigate the labyrinth of state government on the fly. State Senator Jonathan Dismang, a rising leader in the GOP who has served in the legislature since 2009, says the governor embodies an institutional memory that’s sorely needed by members intent on learning how to run the state.
“When I first came in, we were losing potentially all those folks who had strong legislative knowledge, the Percy Malones of the world. You can rattle off a list of guys who went through both chambers, because of term limits,” said Dismang. “I didn’t always agree with Percy Malone, but I wanted to sit next to him because he had the institutional knowledge that I would like to learn from. With those guys all fully turned out at this point, it obviously gives (Beebe) a great deal of … maybe ‘power’ is not the right word, but his understanding [of government] is critical in how successful he’s been.”
“It all goes back to an ability to lead through knowledge,” Dismang added.
SPENDING & SAVING POLITICAL CAPITAL
Beebe’s ability to thrive in a Southern state in the Obama era is something of a puzzle, says Dr. Jay Barth, professor of politics at Hendrix College. Yet if that tension bothers the governor, he never shows it.
“Beebe conveys a lot of confidence to voters. He’s got a very confident personality, but without the ideological purity — which is counter to most successful politicians today,” said Barth. “And he tends to brag about issues on the back end, after something is accomplished, but not on the front end, like so many do.”
The governor seems to feel neither the need nor the desire to rally voters around big, systemic changes. His major 2006 campaign issue was the grocery tax; in 2010, he emphasized his stewardship of the budget through the national recession. His history of accomplishments is a decidedly non-activist one – a record of steady improvements, lack of crises, fiscal responsibility, and firm but cautious adjustments. Pragmatism and compromise aren’t concessions with Mike Beebe, but simply how he does business.
This too has been shaped by his career in the legislature, says Democratic State Senator Joyce Elliott, who has served a decade in the General Assembly under both Beebe and former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“I don’t think he discounts all these years of being a senator,” she said. “It’s an understanding that goes, ‘I’m one of many people, and as one person I can’t get it done. So the pragmatic thing says I have to take into consideration what other people think in order for them to do at most 75% of what I want to see happen.’ He’s never hung up on that 100% — ever.” She laughed. “Sometimes that’s to the point that it drives everybody nuts, but that’s the way it is.”
“Because the legislature was envisioned by our founding fathers as the first branch of government, I defer to that for a good reason,” Beebe said. “They’re in charge of the money and the policy and the executive branch is supposed to execute by its very nature, by its very definition.”
That appreciation cuts past partisan affiliation, he asserted. “Whether it’s been Democrats or Republicans, it’s been a good relationship. [Senate President Pro Tem Michael] Lamoureux is easy to work with. [House Speaker] Davy [Carter] is easy to work with. We don’t always agree, but, you know, I didn’t always agree with Bennie Petrus or Robbie Wills or Paul Bookout or any of those folks either.”
Beebe’s popularity raises a question: In a state that still lags far behind many national indicators of well-being – in health, in education, in poverty – could he have done more?
When George W. Bush was elected to his second term as president, he was quoted as saying, “’I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
Beebe’s own reserves of political capital are overflowing, but the governor has expended it with the same parsimonious hand that he’s taken to the state budget over the years. Given his immense talents and golden position, one could argue that Beebe’s governance has leaned too heavily on caution.
Still, it is also worth remembering that President Bush’s ambitious agenda of immigration policy and Social Security reform floundered during his second term. Overreach is always a possibility, even with a 68% approval rating.
Perhaps Beebe’s tendencies towards restraint and compromise have secured the policy legacy for which he may be best remembered: the private option. Given the necessity of GOP support in securing passage, it’s likely a more activist approach from the governor would have derailed the process. Instead, he allowed Republican leaders such as Dismang, Sen. David Sanders, and Representative John Burris to craft the historic legislation.
“Obviously, his influence is present on the majority of legislation we see,” Dismang said, but it’s been cognizant of the new Republican majority.
“With the creation of the private option, he had a broad picture of what he wanted to do, but then we as legislators influenced that with a more conservative tone,” Dismang said. ”He had an overall goal to expand Medicaid and what we did was – while staying within some of the parameters of his leadership – we then took off and developed a different plan, and he’s been supportive of that. And that’s kind of replicated itself on a number of different issues.”
AN ARKANSAS FOCUS
Wrapping up his final legislative session as Governor this year, Beebe will exit office in January 2015.
It’s perhaps no accident that Beebe uses the phrase “global reach” to describe the office he still holds, because Arkansas is Mike Beebe’s world.
In over thirty years of elected office – he served four years as Attorney General before becoming Governor – he has kept his focus squarely on legislative decisions made in Little Rock, not Washington. Despite approval ratings that are the envy of his peers and despite the state’s history of producing formidable presidential candidates, Beebe is decisive in his intent to end his career as an elected official in 2014. One gets the impression that to Beebe, the Arkansas governorship is both the natural outgrowth of legislative leadership and also the apex of political power.
Arkansas is a famously provincial place, and Beebe’s lifelong dedication to the state resonates with voters. It also helps to explain how Beebe has managed to insulate himself from increasingly negative sentiment towards the Democratic Party, even in the 2010 and 2012 elections that swept so many Republicans into office. That sets him apart from his predecessors.
“Every other modern Arkansas governor, with the exception of Frank White, had ambitions for national office,” Jay Barth said.
It also sets him apart from either of his likely successors. While both have played significant roles in state-level affairs, Mike Ross and Asa Hutchinson have forged much of their political careers through federal elections and appointments. Both are accomplished in their own right, but neither have the wealth of experience in state government that Beebe brought to the office.
“It’s going to be difficult for the [new] governor no matter who it is,” Dismang said. “There is no one running at this time that has that institutional knowledge that he possesses. It’s going to be interesting, in my opinion, to see how that shifts with the process…when I first came here, and to some extent today, a lot of things originated out of the governor’s office. I don’t believe that when that institutional knowledge is gone with him as governor that will necessarily be the case.”
The new governor will face a shifting political landscape as well. Although Beebe may have a rare talent in seeking compromise, it’s also true that not all executives have the good fortune to work with legislative leadership as generally like-minded as the ones he’s encountered, both within his party and the opposition.
So can either party replicate Mike Beebe’s formula for success? In short, no.
The Senate that Beebe knew – the Senate that made him – is gone. Term limits have made twenty-year Senate careers impossible. One-party rule has disappeared. As Arkansas continues to slowly shed its provincial image, the labels of national politics seem likely to be more inescapable for state leaders.
Nonetheless, for the gubernatorial candidates this season and in the future, Beebe’s lessons of restraint are crucial. Respect legislative partnerships over executive fiat. Prioritize state governance over national ambitions. Accept 75% rather than demand 100%. And, above all, never underestimate the power of institutional memory.