There is an election not too far away, politically speaking. The fall of 2017 is a time to start thinking about the fall of 2018, when we’ll have the first mid-term election during the reign of Trump.
Democrats are hoping and plotting, both nationally and in Arkansas. In Washington D.C., Republican congressmen from swing-districts seem to be retiring rather than running, perhaps jeopardizing the House majority. In Arkansas, the state Democratic Party is busy recruiting and pep-talking. Chairman Michael John Gray even recently visited my hometown of Harrison to speak to supporters, in a sign of life from a party desperately needing it.
But the national mood and Trump-tweeting aside, the road back to Democratic relevance in this state seems long, if existent at all.
The big prize – the one that comes with a mansion – is all but secure for Republicans. Gov. Asa Hutchinson isn’t invincible, but he won’t be beat. He’s well-positioned to win re-election because of history, which is fortunate, but also because of his own job performance, which is competence.
Historically, Arkansans like to re-elect their governors. Even Mike Huckabee pulled it off more than once. That’s not necessarily a slight at him, just simply the best example of what I’m trying to say. He stumbled into the office due to the poor performance of another, then avoided his own poor performance. He kept the doors of government open, scored some policy victories, and won re-election in a state that didn’t yet like to elect Republicans.
Today, in a state more favorable to his party, Hutchinson’s performance as governor has been notably non-dramatic. His major accomplishments – computer coding taught in public schools and attracting economic investment from outside the state – have easily been advanced. Both improve the state image and both are accomplished outside of the “nuts and bolts” aspect of state government, meaning there was no taking from one to give to another, only a governor willing to prioritize the effort.
Even on the nuts and bolts, he’s governed well enough resulting in a different state government today versus 2014. There are more than 1,000 fewer state employees; most Arkansans pay less income tax; our working poor still have access to affordable private insurance, if willing to work; certain categories of Medicaid are finally on the path to reform; the budget is still balanced; and schools are still funded.
Our state’s biggest failure of still being mediocre at college football, at least in our northwest corner, is outside of our governor’s control.
Still, there are some criticisms as there should be. No person is perfect. Louder-inclined conservatives, myself included, want more things done more quickly.
There are still people in high places of government who should have been fired. To me they were like Hyman Roth from “The Godfather”: do business with them, respect them, but never trust them. The cult of personality and status quo is hard to overcome, so they’re still around. Our income tax burden is lower overall, but still ranks a regionally uncompetitive 6.9% at its highest rate. Even though some of Medicaid is being reformed, many old flaws are untouched, though the FBI might fix some of that soon.
In the end, it’s hard to know what’s possible and what isn’t. I might have an opinion, but I don’t have the job. So I’ll just trust those who do are pushing change as hard as they can.
Democrats, meanwhile, have criticisms of their own. Most prevalent is the point that Gov. Hutchinson really doesn’t have it that hard. It all comes back to Arkansas Works, the governor’s version of healthcare expansion. They would call it semantically tweaked from Gov. Mike Beebe’s version and say that without the dollars from expansion, in whatever form, he wouldn’t be able to cut taxes and still fund the things the legislature has to fund. It’s why we’re not in a budget crisis like Kansas, in other words. Their point is that their votes keep that from happening, not the governor.
Maybe. But we’re also not Kansas because Hutchinson is not Brownback. He’s governed differently. Expansion dollars are only a single piece of that puzzle. Also important were cutting spending in others areas, like the above mentioned state employee reduction, while also making sure the private sector growth was enough to still fill state coffers with necessary funds, even at reduced tax rates. A record low unemployment rate and record high workforce participation has all but validated the policies of the last few years and kept the budget balanced.
Sure, credit belongs to more than just one man. No one really disputes that. The Democrats just feel a little bitter about things, and I don’t really blame them. It’s been a tough few years. Meanwhile, they must have someone running against Gov. Hutchinson this time next year, or else they officially lose their recognized party status. Whoever that person is, he or she won’t win.
In the end, being governor isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being the best person for the job. Gov. Hutchinson has earned his second term. He can use it as he wishes, a perk of being the one to actually run and win.
Democrats will win again in Arkansas. It just won’t be 2018.
Until then, they’ll always have Razorback football to remind them it could be worse.
Editor’s note: John Burris is a former member of the Arkansas Legislature and is a consultant with Capitol Advisors Group. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.