Wednesday, March 15, 2006

SATURDAY EDITORIAL >>Halter is no Bumpers

Bill Halter got out of the Arkansas governor’s race Thursday, reflecting greater wisdom than the young Rhodes scholar had demonstrated in his brief political career. Halter said he was persuaded that he would have to savage Mike Beebe to have any chance of winning the Democratic nomination and he was loathe to run that kind of campaign. In that manner alone did he remind anyone of young Dale Bumpers, who was unknown outside the mountain hamlet of Charleston where he practiced law and ran a hardware store when he came out of a large pack of candidates to defeat the giants of Arkansas politics in one five-month span 35 years ago. Bumpers refused to attack his opponents, a stance he would keep for 28 remarkable years. Halter had not restrained himself since announcing last fall that he might run for governor, but at least he did not have the stomach for the mudslinging that Republicans hoped he would undertake.

At least as likely, he concluded he could not win at any cost. Attorney General Beebe has too many powers-that-be, too much of the party, too much money, too much caution, too much savvy to be sidetracked by an unknown in a primary only a little more than two months away. Halter’s campaign of ideas, which he had promised and which his superb education led us to expect, was an immediate bust. His big idea was a lottery.

Now Halter joins the innumerable caravan that wants to be Arkansas lieutenant governor. He joins four Democrats and three Republicans running for a job that requires less heavy lifting than any public position in these parts except constable of Big Rock Township. The lieutenant governor has a single duty under the Arkansas Constitution, which is to preside over the state Senate a few hours a week for three months in off-numbered years — if he wants to. If the lieutenant governor wants to knock off, the Senate president pro tempore or another senator will slide into the Senate president’s chair and government runs just as smoothly. Until a few years ago, the lieutenant governor rarely set foot in the Capitol except when the legislature was in session.

But neither the joy of presiding over the somnolent upper chamber or the lassitude of doing next to nothing and drawing a regular paycheck is what impels Halter and all the others. It is the knowledge that lightning struck for the last two lieutenant governors. They fell into the governor’s office without first having to run for it. Jim Guy Tucker became governor when Bill Clinton resigned to become president, and Mike Huckabee became governor when Tucker resigned after his conviction for misdeeds in his business affairs in the 1980s. The only other lieutenant governor who climbed out of the obscurity of the office was the first one, Harvey Parnell, who got to be governor.

From what we have gleaned from Halter, unless we misjudge him, this may be the perfect job.