In 1992, I interviewed the late Sen. Dale Bumpers while working my first reporting job for the Arkadelphia Daily Siftings Herald. As we sat on the hood of his gray Pontiac Bonneville outside Ouachita Baptist University’s football field, I asked him why he had never run for president despite once being included as a possible contender on the cover of Time magazine. He looked wistful for a moment, munched some popcorn, said I didn’t have enough space to print the reasons, and then talked about the strain that being president would cause for his family.
His campaign tagline that year while being challenged by future Gov. Mike Huckabee was, “What a senator should be.”
Bumpers, who died last week, would never be president. But even though I was a fan of Huckabee’s at the time and not covering the race as objectively as I should have, I remember thinking that the tagline was appropriate.
The important word in that tagline was “be,” not “do.” I can’t always agree with what Sen. Bumpers did, which is no criticism of him. For example, he voted against President Reagan’s military buildup, which many say hastened the end of the Cold War, which needed to be hastened. I buy their argument.
But more important than what Bumpers did was who he was. He was an orator and a statesman who respected the Constitution and appreciated history. Because of who he was, he took unpopular stands – against banning flag desecration, for handing the Panama Canal to the Panamanians – and then trusted that voters would understand his reasoning and be fair. Back when he was a country lawyer, he advised the Charleston School Board to obey the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka to let black students go to school with white students. Charleston became the first school district in the former Confederacy to do so.
He had common sense and understood simple math – specifically, that if you want to spend more, you’ll have to collect more. As governor of Arkansas, he increased teacher salaries, which he funded by raising taxes, not by financial trickery or by the state accepting money from Uncle Sam.
He was one of three senators to vote for the Reagan budget cuts but against the Reagan tax cuts of 1981, believing that the numbers did not add up in the midst of the defense buildup described a few paragraphs above.
Boy, was he right on that one. In 1981, the national debt, accumulated over nearly two centuries, was $1 trillion. By 1986, it had more than doubled. In the years since then, it’s grown to $19 trillion.
A big reason why is that a grand, unspoken bargain was created during the 1980s. The Republican Party had come under the spell of a theory, supply side economics, whose adherents promised that tax cuts would more than pay for themselves because of the increased economic growth they would spur. One unfortunate consequence of that thinking was that cutting government, while laudable, became not really necessary. That combination of growing government without paying for it obviously appealed to Democrats as well. No one had to make tough decisions because economic growth supposedly would fill in the gaps.
Only it didn’t. Government spent more, and tax receipts didn’t cover it. It was a great deal for officeholders in both parties and current taxpayers who’ve gotten a lot more government than they’ve paid for. But it’s been a terrible bargain for tomorrow’s taxpayers who will make up the difference or else follow our example and load up their own kids with debt. More than most in Congress, Bumpers refused to participate in the bargain.
Bumpers told me that day in 1992, “I want to be remembered as a guy who was proud of being a politician and who stood up for what he believed and what he felt was best for his country, even at times when it was very unpopular to do it.”
That is how he’ll be remembered – because of who he was, even more than what he did.