Friday, May 21, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Can Blanche come back?

Sen. Blanche Lincoln flew back to Washington early Wednesday and indicated that she would spend most of the next three weeks there tending to business, giving the impression that she was retreating from Arkansas voters who had delivered a stern rebuke in the Democratic primary.

But now is the time when people will discover what she is made of, whether she is the vacillating and timid politician that her voting and public utterances have often made her seem to be or the deliberate and courageous champion of the public good that her campaign set out in the last month of the primary to construct.

Lincoln, who is seeking a third term, received only 44.5 percent of the vote to the lieutenant governor’s 42.5 percent.

Incumbents who receive less than 47 percent of the vote in a preferential primary are conventionally deemed to be beaten in the runoff. Momentum, energy, money, organization and history all seem to be on Halter’s side, and there clearly was a heavy pall over the Lincoln campaign in the election’s wake. What can she possibly do? Since none of the large number of undecided voters in the last month went with her (half opted for Halter and half for the Republican interloper, D. C. Morrison) her prospects for getting many of those votes on June 8 looked weak.

Her showing in her own party was the weakest for a U.S. senator since Sen. Hattie Caraway, her model from the Mississippi

Delta, was shellacked in the Democratic primary in 1944 when she, like Lincoln, sought her third term. Caraway, who had vanquished a powerful field in the 1932 Senate race with the help of Sen. Huey P. Long, finished dead last in a field of four behind a young congressman named J. William Fulbright, the governor and a rich south Arkansas oil man. Lincoln proved stronger anyway than Hatpin Hattie.

But Lincoln might take courage from a more recent precedent. In 1972, Sen. John L. McClellan, a powerful committee chairman seeking his sixth term, was shocked in the first primary when he received only 44.6 percent of the votes to 41.3 percent for an upstart congressman from Camden. The liberal third candidate, Ted Boswell, endorsed David Pryor. McClellan was beaten and wanted to retreat to Washington and play out his string. But some wealthy supporters, led by financier and political kingmaker Witt Stephens, raised a truckload of money three days after the primary, supporters in every county telephoned voters who had not bothered to go to the polls the first time and McClellan came storming back in a hard-hitting debate with the young congressman. He won his sixth term by a comfortable margin.

Can Blanche Lincoln do that? Though near dotage — he was 76 and dissipated by booze — McClellan was determined, spiteful and mean, descriptions no one would apply to Blanche Lincoln. But he seized on Pryor’s strong support from unions and hammered him as a tool of “big labor bosses.” (It’s never “big corporate bosses.”) Halter’s support from international unions (Arkansas has few union members) that formerly supported Lincoln gives Lincoln the same opening, which she has exploited so far with little effect. You can expect to hear the hoary old phrase “labor bosses” in the days ahead, if not from Lincoln’s lips, in the commercials of proxy national groups that claim to be “independent.”

But Lincoln needs to figure out exactly why she lost more than 55 percent of Democratic voters. This has been the most nationalized campaign since the Fulbright-Bumpers race in 1974, and the national media have characterized it as an ideological battle between the liberal Halter and moderate/conservative Lincoln. There is little evidence of Halter’s liberalism beyond his willingness to consider national legislation to lower the bar for unions to be recognized as the bargaining agent for workers, which Lincoln herself championed until last summer. Halter did not oppose the health-care law that is supposed to be the cause of so much distemper and so much anger at Lincoln. He wanted an even stronger law.

The voting demography Tuesday does not reflect that divide either. Lincoln carried the liberal precincts in Little Rock and Pulaski County and Washington County heavily, which provided her plurality. Halter won decisively in the conservative rural stretches across south Arkansas and the north-central region and ran surprisingly close in the farm counties of east Arkansas that were supposed to be her bastion.

The truth is that ideology and even her shifting voting habits did not cost her a first-primary victory. She simply was not familiar across the state in spite of 11 years in the Senate and six in the House of Representatives from east Arkansas. She has not been a conventional politician like her contemporary Mark Pryor and predecessors Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, who made every tomato festival, possum roast and chicken fry, rode in every parade and spoke at every high school graduation, convention and club gathering they could manage.

Lincoln lives in Washington with her family, rearing her twins on weekdays, weekends and holidays and only occasionally making forays into the outer reaches of Arkansas. Her office’s constituent work, where a congressperson collects political chits, lags behind all the other congressional offices. It wasn’t her votes on health care or even the bank bailout that allowed those voters to stray to Halter or a wisecracking nonentity like Morrison. All those things should not detract from a senator’s real work, which is helping craft wise laws for the nation and the state, but they are facts of political life.

She has a chance now to show that she is just as resourceful and tough as John McClellan and as able as Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. She will have to be. If she can revive a moribund campaign in two and a half weeks, she might have a good chance of holding her seat against the tidal wave that all the pundits expect this fall.