Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 11: A Good Politician

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

Democratic Governor Mike Beebe in the Governor's mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sept. 21, 2011.

Little Rock, Arkansas

First things first, I have a new print column lurking here, behind the paywall, about my frolics with the Miller County Patriots down in Texarkana a few days ago. To make a long story short, the Patriots raised some very valid points about government intrusion into their own lives–very similar to the arguments made by Dennis Ramsey, the mayor of Hope, in this space yesterday. A commercial real estate builder named Curt Green told me that he had been able to move quickly on deals in the past because his bank gave him “character loans”–that is, they knew and trusted him because of his past record of repayment and his place in the community–but Dodd-Frank had made such loans impossible. It would now take 6 weeks to shuffle through the paperwork, and he lost the deal. (I should note that “character loans” given by unscrupulous mortgage-mongers to people who didn’t deserve them was a root cause of the financial collapse in 2008.)

The Patriots became markedly less reliable, though, when I asked them…

if they thought Barack Obama was a patriot. Then it started raining all sorts of crazy. One man said the President was a socialist who wanted the government to run everything. Another man said the President went around the world apologizing for our country, so he couldn’t be a patriot. I’ve been stewing over this socialism canard for a while now and the Miller County Patriots, who surely will be reading this, deserve a bit of an education:

Government regulation is not socialism. Government mandates–like the requirement that you need insurance for your car, or to pay your hospital bills if you get sick–are not socialism. They are essential protections that the public has chosen to provide itself in every industrial democracy. Socialism is when the state owns the means of production. Period. Calling the President a socialist is, simply, a sign of ignorance. It diminishes political debate in our country.

The Oxford English Dictionary backs Joe up here. socialism: “A theory or system of social organization based on state or collective ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange for the common benefit of all members of society; advocacy or practice of such a system, esp. as a political movement.” — KS

To move on: I spent a pleasant hour with Mike Beebe, the governor of Arkansas, in a familiar place–the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. I hadn’t been there in 20 years and all sorts of Clinton memories came flooding back. Beebe is something of a wonder–a Democrat in a red state with a stratospheric favorability rating–82%, with 10% negative. (He rates about 70% with Tea Party sorts.) I asked him how he did it. “I try to tell them the truth, underpromise during campaigns and overperform when governing.”

Democratic Governor Mike Beebe in the Governor's mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sept. 21, 2011. (Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME)

But that’s not all the story: Beebe spent twenty years in the State Senate and 4 years as Attorney General before becoming governor. He knows the machinery of state government cold. (It occurred to me that we haven’t had a President with a similar knowledge base since George H.W. Bush–we keep electing “outsiders” who promise they’re going to shake up the federal government, and never figure out how to actually run it.)

Beebe, who has a thatch of gray hair and sharp blue eyes, has had some luck and has worked some wonders. The recession hasn’t been awful in Arkansas; the local economy was diverse, so there wasn’t a terrible plunge in tax receipts, which made it possible for Arkansas to be one of 4 states that didn’t have to eviscerate themselves to balance their budgets the past few years. The real wonder is in education, where Arkansas now ranks 6th among the 50 states in a composite rating compiled by Education Week.

The Education Week ratings came out in January. Arkansas got a boost from being ranked first in “transitions and alignments,” a category rating how well public school grades are coordinated with “other segments of the educational pipeline.” The state ranked 37th in student achievement, 27th in school finance and second in teacher development.–KS

Traditionally–even in Bill Clinton’s time–Arkansas ranked near the bottom, but a 2007 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling on education funding made some real progress possible. “According to state law,” the governor told me, “we can not cut a dime from ‘adequate’ education funding.” There is equitable funding across the board, from wealthy suburbs to the poorest communities.

The court case was Lake View vs. Huckabee, and the seminal decision came when the court ruled that public school funding was inadequate and students weren’t being afforded equal education opportunities. As such, the Court deemed it in violation of the Arkansas Constitution. But by 2007, the Court deemed the problem “cured” due to actions taken by the General Assembly and Gov. Beebe–KS

When he looks at the federal government, Beebe sees a mess. No surprise there. “It’s totally dysfunctional, paralyzed, over-ideologued,” Beebe said and then he confirmed what the Tea Party folks had been saying about Dodd-Frank regulations. “The federal government over-reacted. They should have gone and fixed the problems where they occurred”–that is, on Wall Street–“but they wound up punishing people who had been doing the right thing.” (Arkansas bankers, he said, had been very conservative when it came to home loans.)

Beebe’s assessment of the President’s performance was “less than stellar. It just doesn’t seem to be working.” He also said, “One thing you hear a lot, from people in both parties down here, is that they are simply not going to vote for an incumbent of any stripe in 2012. There’s still a lot of anger out there.”

Once again, Beebe reminded me that our problem in this country isn’t too much politics, it’s too much bad politics–and too few good, experienced politicians. Arkansas, for some reason, has been very good at producing some excellent ones.

Yesterday’s Playlist: the ipod was in locked into a shuffling beat…

1.T-Bone Shuffle by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells

2. Crazy Dream by Los Lonely Boys

3. Keep the Car Running by Arcade Fire

4. I Get a Kick Out of You by Frank Sinatra

5. Moves by the New Pornographers.