Wednesday, August 21, 2013

There's still time to save Arkansas GOP from term limits debacle

As reported earlier, the anti-term limits measure to appear on the Arkansas ballot in 2014 would appear to a boon to Republicans who aim to protect their incumbents and solidify the GOP's state legislative majority. No doubt this will be used as a selling point to the party's hyper-partisans.

This is short-sighted. Thoughtful Arkansas Republicans should call for their leaders to take this awful measure off the ballot while there is still time.  It is likely this measure will backfire on the party, hurting fundraising and morale going into the 2014 elections, reducing the chances of achieving important policy goals and setting the party up for a difficult future.

Straining party resources

Term limits are popular with large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents. But it is no secret that fundraising to defend term limits in Arkansas -- where the movement to impose term limits originally had a GOP pedigree -- will disproportionately come from one side of the aisle. Plus, the bulk of the volunteers who work to save the popular voter-approved term limits will skew towards the GOP. Hence, money and volunteers hours will be lost to other GOP campaigns in order to battle a GOP initiative.

As the campaign to protect term limits picks up steam and party regulars get invested in it, there will necessarily be a dampening of enthusiasm for the party leaders who -- as a group -- championed this measure. How could it be otherwise?

Weakening the brand

The GOP bills itself as the state's fiscally conservative party. The party attracts fiscal conservatives to run for office and these candidates must talk the talk to primary voters and contributors if they want to advance.

As illustrated in a famous Cato Institute study at the Congressional level, Republicans tend to arrive at the capitol and more or less live up to their fiscal conservative rhetoric for a while. But after 6, 7, 8 years their spending ramps up and soon they are no longer distinguishable from the veteran spenders.

There is every reason to expect that tenured Republican legislators as a group -- who will be able to run as incumbents for their own seats for 16 years straight instead of today's six or eight -- will stray further from the fiscally conservative path.

Term limits cut both ways

Term limits cut both ways. Protecting today's incumbents from electoral competition will surely help maintain the Republican majority longer -- but not forever. But some day down the line the shoe will be on the other foot and Republicans will be in the minority in a system rigged in favor of the incumbent majority.

It is not too late to remove the measure from the 2014 ballot. Indeed, when the GOP-dominated Florida legislature voted to put a term limits attack on the ballot in 2006, they heard from their base and voted to take the measure off the ballot just in time.

The same can happen in Arkansas, and it should.