Wednesday, October 27, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Blanche vs. Boozman

Were it not for the little matter of party labels it would be hard to find two members of Congress more intimately yoked in philosophy, style and records than Senator Blanche Lincoln and Representative John Boozman, who find themselves uncomfortably paired against each other in the U. S. Senate race. They have in fact worked in tandem for most of a decade and now must tear away at each other through TV commercials that cast their friend in the worst light.

Lincoln is the more personable one and has a much higher public profile, which explains better than anything else why Boozman is probably going to win. This is not the season for a politician to be well known. People want to take a chance on the person they don’t know. The mood has not served officeholders of either party well this year and Senator Lincoln least of all.

Until recently, Boozman and Lincoln shared a vision about what their job was. It was to get as much federal money as possible for Arkansas. Boozman is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee and, like the man he imitated, John Paul Hammerschmidt, he has loved nothing better than to announce federal earmarks for projects in his district and to attend the ribbon cuttings. He and Lincoln frequently collaborated on earmarks and she used her position on the Senate Agriculture Committee to channel subsidies and emergency relief to Arkansas farmers.

This year their paths diverged. Owing to public alarm over spending and deficits, Boozman has enlisted in the Republican strategy of renouncing federal spending. Although like Lincoln he voted for the George W. Bush economic stimulus programs, Boozman has opposed any spending by President Obama to bolster the economy. He promises not to seek money for Arkansas again if he is elected to the Senate. On that point at least, Lincoln has not changed. She will continue to fight for federal dollars for Arkansas projects. That is not a winning strategy this year.

Their styles are interchangeable. They waffle on hot issues, going as far as announcing their opposition to bills they actually sponsored. Lincoln has ridiculed Boozman for saying that he doubted he would ever vote for the so-called “Fair Tax,” the 30 percent sales tax on everything a person buys, from a home to a haircut, although he is a sponsor of the bill in the House and had touted it. But Lincoln had done the same on the card-check bill, which would make it easier for workers to win union elections. She voted for and against national health insurance reform and sounds sometimes like she likes it and other times like she hates it. Boozman has supported diverting Social Security taxes into private markets, but he denies Lincoln’s charges that he would ever do such a thing. Both voted for Bush’s unfunded Medicare drug law, which sent Medicare spiraling toward early bankruptcy and now waffle on how the costs are to be brought under control. 

Arkansas has a long history of sending strong-minded people to the United States Senate, from Augustus Garland in the 19th century to Joe T. Robinson, J. William Fulbright, John L. McClellan, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. Blanche Lincoln has not and will not make us forget them, and neither will John Boozman. He ranks as one of the least effective members of the 435-member House of Representatives. His stature will not improve in the Senate. Here is an example of his ineptness or torpor: He has advocated the construction of a national museum for U.S. marshals at Fort Smith. It is to be financed partly from the proceeds of a commemorative coin for the marshals. Boozman’s bill authorizing the coin, which needs the signatures of 290 members of the House, languished and died. He reintroduced it this year but it died again because he never got but 110 sponsors. It is a matter merely of buttonholing congressmen and getting them to sign — no one refuses to sign these things — but he couldn’t get it done. Though money bills must originate in the House Lincoln introduced a companion bill in the Senate as a gesture of support for Boozman. She has 56 of the necessary 67 sponsors although the bill’s passage in the Senate would be meaningless.

So how does one decide which to vote for or, in our case, to endorse? Most voters decided long ago, even before the Republicans persuaded Boozman to run against his friend. Determined Democrats, or at least most of them, will vote for her because regardless of how she votes she will caucus with the Democrats in January and not the Republicans. 

            We cast our lot, tepidly, with Lincoln for a different reason. Boozman will vote 100 percent of the time, regardless of the issue and the effect on Arkansas people, with the Republican leadership of the Senate —i.e., Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. 

With Lincoln, you can never be sure. She is the least reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, next to Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. If the economic powers strongly oppose a Democratic position, she will abandon the party and go with them. It is not the kind of independence that we particularly admire, but it does make a difference that she is in the seat. From time to time she will cast a very good vote. 

Senator Boozman could stay at home, the sergeant at arms of the Senate could record his reflexive vote on every roll call, and we could save the expense of the office. 

We will take our chances with a weathervane rather than an automaton.