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The Rising: Mike Beebe, Reluctant Star

Arkansas Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe has all the tools to be a star but he lacks national ambition. AP Photo/Danny Johnston

In a world filled with politicians whose ambitions far outstrip their talents, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is the exact opposite.

Beebe is among the most popular politicians in the country with polls regularly showing more than seven in ten voters in the Razorback State approving of the job he had done since coming to office in 2006.

And yet, despite repeated urgings from state and national admirers, Beebe expresses no interest in following in the national footsteps of past Arkansas governors named Clinton and Huckabee.

"I'm not a great traveler," Beebe told the Fix in an interview as part of our "Rising" series that profiles politicians you don't know but should. He added that the Democratic Governors Association had approached him several times in recent years to take on more of a leadership role but he had resisted. "They just want more folks to volunteer for hard duties," joked Beebe about the DGA entreaties.

The Rising

Beebe's path to popularity (if not national prominence) has been a slow one. He spent two decades in the Arkansas state Senate before running and winning a race for Arkansas Attorney General in 2002.

Four years later, he sought the governor's office against former Rep. Asa Hutchinson who was touted by national Republicans as a potential star. Beebe crushed Hutchinson 56 percent to 41 percent and has spent the next three years focused on, in his own words, trying to drag the state from its traditional place at the bottom of state rankings on things like education and heath care.

"It's hard to get really excited about being 40th in something," Beebe acknowledges but notes that the successes the state has had in recent years -- moving to 40th in terms of overall health from 50th a decade ago --- are "nothing short of miraculous." (Of course, Beebe's predecessor -- former Gov. Mike Huckabee -- deserves a piece of that success as well.)

Asked about how he has maintained his high popularity numbers in a political environment that is decidedly anti-incumbent, Beebe is matter-of-fact -- noting that the state's economy hasn't been hit nearly as hard as some, and that the Democratic-controlled state legislature has handed him several tools -- including a "quick action" fund for emergency spending, which has been derided as a slush fund by his opponents -- that have helped him mitigate the economic downturn.

"In an economic crisis, we're faring better than a lot of other states," said Beebe. "Because of that a lot of the anger and fear that my colleagues have had directed toward them has been tempered."

The result of Beebe's stewardship of the state? Republicans have no announced candidate against him and there is zero talk of finding someone serious despite the fact that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the Razorback State by 20 points last November.

If Beebe wins re-election next year, he will be 68 years old in early 2015 when he will be term limited out of the governor's mansion, the same age that McCain was when he made his second run for president last year.

While Beebe seems to have no interest in national office (and, unlike most politicians, we think it's safe to take him at his word on this one), he has clearly thought quite a bit about what has made so many Arkansas pols so successful at the national level.

The size of Arkansas makes it a place where retail politics still matters, explained Beebe, and that "give and take" between politician and voter produces the sort of pols -- like Clinton, Huckabee and Dale Bumpers among others -- who are quick on their feet. "You end up naturally having to understand to relate to people, to listen and respond," said Beebe.

Luck has, of course, also played a role in the prominence of Arkansas-based politicians, acknowledged Beebe; "We have had a run of extraordinary talent," he said.

And, while Beebe's poll numbers seem to suggest that he is the latest incarnation of Arkansas' remarkable run of national-level politicians, he is adamant about his interest in keeping his focus squarely on his state.

"I'm not ready to die but I don't want to start a new career," Beebe says of the possibility of a national run after he leave the governor's mansion. "Why would you ever want to be anything else after you've been governor?"

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 23, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  The Rising  
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That's a pretty bad 60.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | November 23, 2009 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Well, maybe with the Fix's backing this young man'll go places, by gosh!

Beeb is doing a nice job, but he's 60, Cillizza. I know that's the new 50and all but Beeb is not an up-and-comer. He's a hard working guy who has gone as fer as he wants to go. He says it himself.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | November 23, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Wow, a Democrat in The Rising? And no mention of Palin? I thought this was The Fix ...

Posted by: mnteng | November 23, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

This is a great article (as always), but Arkansas is the Natural State not the Razorback State. Also, another Arkansas tidbit for future reference (cause I've seen it incorrectly stated before on your commentary), Arkansas is a state where the governor and lt. gov run on separate tickets not the same. Just wanted to pass the information along.

Posted by: jobeth0495 | November 23, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Maybe a book tour and an Oprah interview?

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | November 23, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse


SC gov faces 37 charges he broke state ethics laws

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose tryst with an Argentine lover blossomed into a wide-ranging scandal, is accused of breaking ethics laws by using taxpayer money for pricey airline seats, taking state planes for personal and political trips and occasionally tapping his campaign chest to reimburse himself for travel."

Well, CC how about an analysis of what will happen once Sanford is either impeached or resigns?

Posted by: drindl | November 23, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

When I read that the DGA had courted Beebe I actually wondered a Democratic group would court a Republican governor .. then I twigged that this is a Rising column about a Democrat.

Damned good thing I was sitting down. The room spun, my ears rang, and I almost headrushed into blackness.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | November 23, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I think Beebe is a good guy. He seems to have alot of the same governing theory as Zell Miller (Ga.). People in the South respond well with that sort of politician. Beebe is a lock for reelection in 2010. Blanche Lincoln is where the race in Arkansas is. No Republican worth their salt would risk running against Beebe in 2010 when they could run for Lincoln's seat and have a shot to actually win.

Posted by: reason5 | November 23, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Beebe is the type of politician that may not run for national office but he will breed a good group of younger politicians who will follow in his mold. Good politicians take other good-natured politicians under their wings and shone those they don't like. For example, John Warner in VA never liked George Allen and refused to support him as he rose quickly in the ranks of the GOP, but he did notice and offered guidance to Mark Warner even though he was a democrat.
Turns out Allen was racist piece of #%$# and Mark Warner replaced John in the Senate. I would look to Beebe's disciples in Arkansas to make a splach in say 10 yers or so.

Posted by: AndyR3 | November 23, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the DGA, rather than trying to poach some talent, should look to Beebe as an example to emulate. Traditionally, the states are supposed to be incubators where policy ideas can be tested before implementing them on a more widespread basis. If Beebe is doing something well, start pointing out what those things are & start campaigning on those policies elsewhere.

Posted by: bsimon1 | November 23, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

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