A chat among friends

It was organized as a chat among friends, two political scientists and two members of the Arkansas House of Representatives, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, the latter doubling as yet the third academic. The players: professors Joe Giammo and Art English; their UALR colleague, Rep. Ann Clemmer of Saline County and the Grand Old Party; and Rep. Fred Love, Democrat of Little Rock.

Giammo and English pondered the likelihood of Washington-style party confrontation when the legislature convenes in January. And spoke of the state’s traditional center-right politics, and its dominant post-World War II players: Fulbright, Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton chief among the Democrats, and Winthrop Rockefeller, unrecognizable as Republican by today’s yardstick. All of them in several respects to the left of their constituents.

Love volunteered that, with Republicans in command after almost 150 years, he hoped Little Rock would not become Washington writ small, capitols gridlocked by rival ideologues. Love seemed, or seemed to me, resigned to changes in what might be called the existing order — to mean new restrictions on abortion and on voting, and fewer impediments to charter schools. And contests over tax and economic policy.

Now, and with all regard for the other panelists, what I considered the evening’s most memorable comments. Memorable, because Clemmer is among the less doctrinaire and least angry of her caucus, as reflected in what she had to say; and because her facial expressions appeared to reflect the stresses that come with growing a political party legendarily fractious in its gestation and exuberantly myopic in its vision of governance.

Example: The defeat, for re-election, of some of Clemmer’s Republican colleagues, embarrassments from their first days in office. “No one thought Loy Mauch (of Bismarck) would win in 2010. No would thought Jon Hubbard (of Jonesboro) would win in 2010. So in some ways 2012 was a correction election.” Translation: You can’t prevent candidates from another universe from filing for office but you have to do a better job of recruiting candidates better equipped to administer our corner of our planet. The center hasn’t gone that far starboard.

And the celebration by Republicans of their Arkansas ascendancy, one the party is entitled to enjoy — provided, Clemmer said, choosing her words carefully, the revelers look beyond the moment. It is “troubling,” she confessed, to consider the gap between today’s “mainstream” Republicanism and those segments of the electorate that chose Democrats in general and President Obama in particular: Hispanics, women (especially college-educated women), younger voters and gays, many of whom might prefer Republican economics but not at the price of Republican cultural values.

“We may want to be pragmatic, but we have these true believers,” as Clemmer put it, whose rhetoric shoves the Republican Party so far to the right that many moderate voters are frightened away. Could that have been one reason why the GOP will have to settle next year for (it appears) 51 representatives in the Arkansas House, a bare majority, rather than the 60- or even 70-member caucus several of its leading voices predicted?

Clemmer seemed genuinely stumped. She was still studying “why the polls were so far off,” why the Republican pickup was not larger, especially when the polling methodology “seemed solid.” But “Clearly we were acting with faulty information.”

With that, a tip of the hat to Governor Beebe, whose bus tour of northeast Arkansas, his old stomping grounds, in the days immediately prior to Election Day Clemmer credited with rescuing some endangered Democrats by “reminding voters of their Democratic roots.”

There was a bit of discussion of race, of what politicos commonly refer to as “identity politics.”

Exuding understanding, Ann Clemmer, a white Republican, a native of predominantly black Mississippi County now residing in and representing a predominantly white Saline County exurb district, gently allowed she thought it “almost impossible for a person of color to not vote for Barack Obama.”

I wondered what the reaction would have been in her State Capitol caucus. I really, really wondered when, a few moments later, she leaned forward and, her voice rising, and said: “Four years ago I wanted to vote for Barack Obama. I wanted to vote for him, this exciting, charismatic man, because I’m a Delta girl who wanted us to get past this.”

This — this matter of race: Others of Clemmer’s party and some of its philosophical kin used it with calculated cynicism in the season just ended.

In January the Delta girl will begin the final House term the Arkansas Constitution permits her. This, which is not term-limited, will still be around. A question for her successors: will they get past this?