Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Bob Johnson is no Truman

The budget deficit is exploding, unemployment is rising, violence in Iraq and Afghanistan is climbing, school test scores continue to lag, and Bob Johnson says he may run for the United States Senate. Will the bad news never cease?

A Republican blog leaked the word last week that “Death Star Bob Johnson,” as the Arkansas Times calls the state senator from Bigelow, was thinking about running against Senator Blanche Lincoln for the Democratic nomination next year. Yes, he confirmed, all kinds of people are encouraging him to run and he may have to give in. He thought people would like to have a Democratic senator who would kick the traces of the party’s leaders, in her and his case Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.

Hardly any Democrat follows the party’s leadership less often than Blanche Lincoln, unless it is Mark Pryor. A real alternative would be someone who votes with the Republican leadership all the time. There will be plenty of them running. We suspect that most people, regardless of their political allegiance, would take a real Republican over a faux Republican. Something there is to be said for the straightforward honesty of identifying yourself with the ideas and the party with which you have concert.
If running against Lincoln from the right in the Democratic primary does not seem awkward and unproductive, Bob Johnson is burdened by his record in the state Senate and House of Representatives. People may remember him for leading the battle in the legislature four years ago to allow Deltic Timber to clear the hillsides around Lake Maumelle for luxury estates, which would risk polluting the pristine waters that provide drinking water for most of us in central Arkansas. Johnson is the master of power building and logrolling in the legislature, but for one of the few times he was bested in that effort by his successor as speaker of the House of Representatives, Bill Stovall of Quitman. Johnson tried to make amends to the clean-water people (that is, most of us) this year, but it is hard to forget what were his first instincts.

Johnson organized what became known as “The Brotherhood,” a consortium of conservative senators from both parties who controlled the Senate and directed tens of millions of dollars in state appropriations into political projects that helped legislators get re-elected. How he did it happened to be illegal. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville sued, saying that the earmarks violated the constitutional prohibition against local and special acts, and the Arkansas Supreme Court said he was right.
But the cronyism did not reach its pinnacle until this summer. Johnson helped ramrod the lottery-enabling bill through the legislature and installed his mentor, Ray Thornton, as a member of the Lottery Commission and then as its chairman. Johnson had his aide find an expert to tell them how to run a lottery right and she landed Ernie Passailaigue of South Carolina, now the $324,000-a-year director of the lottery. When the fat salaries began to be handed out to the right people for sinecures on the lottery team, Johnson and Thornton pronounced them fine.

The best that can be said about Johnson’s credentials as a Democrat is that as speaker of the Arkansas House, he gave Governor Mike Huckabee fits. That ought not be enough. Huckabee was right on occasion.

Johnson called himself a “Harry Truman Democrat.” Everybody in America, conservative or liberal, eventually became an admirer of Harry S. Truman, so it is hard to know what that means to Bob Johnson. Even Republicans invoke Truman’s name at their quad- rennial presidential conventions. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush claimed his mantle.

Truman bucked the prevailing passions of the time and called for a national health-care system for every American, full civil rights for African-Americans and a massive American aid program to rebuild war-ravaged Europe. He fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the conservative icon who wanted a wider war with the communists. Truman fought for greater protections for workers to organize unions and to strike, and he vetoed the anti-labor amendments that unions now seek to change with the so-called card-check bill. Congress had to pass Taft Hartley over Truman’s veto. He promised to win back workers’ organizing rights, but a conservative Congress never let him.

Is that the Truman Democrat that Senator Bob Johnson would be? The Stephens financial interests, who are his big backers, and the other people who are after him to run for the Senate, do not have that in mind. We are sure that Johnson doesn’t either.

But if he does, he ought to let everyone know up front. We could reassess Bob Johnson. We are not holding our breath.