Friday, February 26, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Primary day on Tuesday

Tuesday is Election Day in Arkansas—two party primaries and a mini-general election rolled into one. We are voting now instead of the spring or summer for the Democratic and Republican primaries and November for part of the general election because Gov. Hutchinson and the legislature last spring thought the most important thing for Arkansas was the political career of former Arkansan Mike Huckabee, not the convenience of voters or tradition. Huckabee thought he needed the near-certain early victory in Arkansas to propel his campaign for president. So, although it would interfere with the legislative calendar and the normal rhythms of governance, all the elections that could be moved were advanced to the same wintry day.

Not so lamentably, the Huckabee campaign never got off the ground. Even before many of the caucus-goers in Iowa were counted in the first test of the season and a month before it seemed likely that he would lose his treasured native state as well, Huckabee suspended his bankrupt and lifeless campaign. His chief campaign hand, the former Little Rock TV personality Alice Stewart, went over to his arch-enemy, Ted Cruz, and his daughter, Sarah, jumped to the payroll of Donald Trump. Trump passed along some nice thoughts about Huckabee, who alone in the original giant field of candidates had never sniped at him. No word yet on where Huckabee’s two boys are alighting.

But the election has taken on some importance after all, notwithstanding the fact that moving the filing for offices up six months left most Arkansas officeholders unchallenged. It is suddenly a make-or-break election not for Huckabee but for Sen. Rubio, the establishment candidate for president, and for Gov. Hutchinson, who is not even on the ballot. Other than that, the election is largely meaningless aside from the individual aspirations of candidates for local offices. In the single statewide political race (we don’t count the nonpartisan judgeships), perennial Republican candidate Curtis Coleman will take his usual drubbing, this time by the somnolent U.S. senator, the old Razorback pulling guard John Boozman.

Virtually the entire Republican establishment, in Arkansas as well as the nation, is suddenly in the corner of the young Florida senator and son of Cuban immigrants. Hutchinson is campaigning with Rubio in central Arkansas and a big contingent of other Republican officers have endorsed him. The Republican house organ, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, has endorsed him and daily runs editorials ridiculing frontrunner Donald Trump or else op-ed columns penned by, or for, Republican luminaries explaining why Rubio is the best for the job and the most likely to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Rubio has not yet won a state primary or caucus or even come close. Arkansas is his only bet for Super Tuesday, which promises to be a big day for Trump and a somewhat lesser one for Ted Cruz, who expects to pull out a narrow win in his home state of Texas. If Rubio can’t post a win in Arkansas, he will go into the next big day, March 15, needing to win his home state of Florida or else cave. Trump leads him in the polls there. Arkansas seems to be split three ways among Trump, Rubio and Cruz. Endorsements usually mean little.

We will see Tuesday whether voters have much regard for the preferences of the governor and the political establishment. Usually, they don’t. As for us, we are clueless about which would make the best or least scary president. Trump has a slight edge in bluster and bravado, but the promises of all three seem equally unattainable or else undesirable.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks unbeatable by the aging Bernie Sanders, whose admirable sincerity and consistency in a life chasing utopian causes must give way to the recognition that the most difficult and stressful job in the universe, every single day and night, may be too much for a man well into the twilight of his labor and studies. For good or ill, she will be the Democratic candidate. Sanders’ Arkansas vote will be a good hail and farewell.

For Asa Hutchinson and so much of the state that depends upon the continuation of health reform—a.k.a., Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act—the election could hardly be more important. All eyes will be upon the handful of Republican primary races between candidates who are for or against the expansion of medical coverage to some 260,000 poor adults or else against it in varying degrees. Hutchinson has come out squarely in defense of Republican legislators, including Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) and Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), who have voted for the so-called “private option” of Obamacare.

If they are defeated, it will not change the composition of the House and Senate when they vote on the Medicaid program in April, but it will change the mood of legislators and the governor’s ability to get the huge majorities he needs at a special session and the following fiscal session to continue the program for another year.

If he and the Medicaid expansion fail, the state budget will suddenly be in crisis, requiring huge cuts in other services or (impossible) tax increases. It will spell the end of his highway program, which is built upon transferring state general revenues generated or saved by Medicaid to highway, street and road building. Hospitals and doctors, most of them, and perhaps those 260,000 poor people (if they are aware of it) hope he succeeds.

We do, too.