One of the unlamented parts of writing political columns in my past was the ritual of interviewing state legislative candidates from Northwest Arkansas. Almost invariably, the eager individual seated across from me had all the answers. Over the years, I came to dread the dreary, almost verbatim recitations. No matter how often the name and face over there might change, the gist was pretty much the same:
“So what do you want to do if you get elected to represent your district?”
They’d never have any real plans, real ideas, about how to pay for things after their wished-for tax-cutting sprees. (Or any other ideas to speak of either.) Sure, they’d offer some boiler plate about paying for cuts by eliminating waste. But they never knew where the waste might be. They’d just have to get elected and find it. Right. They never got back to me.
Cut taxes. Check.
Be sure to mention how conservative you are. Check. For extra points, mention it several times. Check again.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to point out your religiosity – generic christian, of course (is there any other?) And the more literalist, the better. Check.
Behold, that was the standard resume of most of the dime-a-dozen would-be state representatives in recent years. No further details needed.
It worked like a charm.
The other day, I caught up with the results of this year’s primaries. And I see nothing much has changed in Northwest Arkansas. The same effortless chatter seals the deal.
Oh, you want examples?
Let’s start with the Republican primary for the state Senate between two-term incumbent Bill Pritchard and Jon Woods, who was term-limited in the House (i.e., he needs a new government job). Woods won by four percentage points after a campaign that featured ads complaining that Pritchard had voted for too many ill-defined “tax increases” over his legislative career.
The mostly unexceptional Pritchard boasted little legislative accomplishment, other than getting elected several times over. But his cardinal sin, according to Woods, was that he wasn’t doctrinaire enough on taxes. Woods promised that he would vote for absolutely no new taxes. Pritchard may have dissed tax increases in general; but Woods was against the very idea. Check – a big one — for Woods.
In the hours after the election, Woods referred to Pritchard as too “moderate,” and said the district wanted somebody more “conservative.” No need to spell out the meaning of the terms – imprecise as they might be. Check that one off again. Woods got plenty of donations from well-heeled non-moderates eager to help fund his attacks against Pritchard. Did you see all those expensive billboards lambasting Pritchard? Somebody had to pay for them.
So, Woods, who made hay a couple of legislatures ago by bashing immigrants, is – barring an unlikely defeat by a Democratic opponent in the November general election — off to Little Rock once again to represent this part of the state. It will be interesting, if dispiriting, to see how much further he can go in pandering to the most unenlightened elements of his constituency.
Meanwhile, in deepest Benton County, another true-blue “conservative” Republican retired another incumbent from his own party. Bart Hester, well-funded by contributors from area Tea Party affiliates, ousted Tim Summers from the House.
Summers once had the distinction of being the last known Democratic office-holder in Benton County, with years of service on the county’s quorum court. He was considered a thoughtful, yes, even reasonable, elected official. Then, he saw the future and switched parties to run as a Republican for the House. He won two terms before Hester came along to settle scores with Summers’ past, which was much too moderate, even heretical, considering his once and forever Democratic taint.
During his campaign, Hester described himself as a conservative Christian who’s against abortion. He vowed not to raise any taxes. Wow! Check. Check. And double-check. With no Democratic opponent in November, Hester is basically an office-holder already. His votes in the Legislature will certainly reflect the wishes of his contributors/purchasers. The beauty of it is that they probably won’t even have to tell him how to vote. He’s already the grand marshal of their parade, riding the trailing float in the position of honor.
There’s not much nuance to an absolute pledge against any tax increases, but the words conservative and Christian, in other conversations, can have some shades of meaning, even be worth exploring. In the current political climate though, all these words are mere dog whistles, registering at a high enough pitch to get through to those who consider themselves like-minded. That’s really all that’s necessary.
There’s nothing new about it. But it is amazing how easy and effective it continues to be.
Guest opinion by George Arnold
George Arnold was a newspaper reporter and editor for 35 years. He writes from Springdale.