Leader Blues

Friday, September 18, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Blanche finds her groove

Back in the 1970s, the news reports regularly described Rep. Wilbur D. Mills of White County as “the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee,” Sen. John L. McClellan as “the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee” and Sen. J. William Fulbright as “the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

Glory days those were when little Arkansas boasted three of the most influential men in Washington, whom presidents approached deferentially, and callow members of Congress knelt to touch the hem of their garments.

We were never sure what Arkansas got out of their immense prestige. Our large quotient of elderly and poor got Medicare and Medicaid, thanks to Mills’ power and legerdemain with the legislative process. We gained a measure of international peace from Fulbright’s intellectual labors. We got the Arkansas River navigation system thanks to McClellan and Sen. Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, his Appropriations teammate. (Dale Bumpers, an Appropriations member but never chairman, probably got more and worthier pork for the state.) Regardless, we felt important in Arkansas, like we had a big hand in the country’s destiny.

A quarter-century after that, the next generation of eminences, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, were gone from the Senate, too. Bumpers had chaired the lightly regarded Senate Committee on Small Business, but he was known as Congress’s foremost orator and a lawmaker of unusual intelligence and principle. David Pryor was known as the best-loved member of the Senate, on both sides of the aisle. Since 1999, when both had departed, it has felt like Arkansas was the wimp of Congress. We have always had a problem with our self-esteem in Arkansas.

Last week, that suddenly changed. Although the word “powerful” is yet to be attached to her title, Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln is the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition. The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy caused a shuffling of chairmanships that left Agriculture open to its ranking Democrat. She is the first woman to chair the committee and one of the youngest chairs ever.

Agriculture is one of the big committees. Its portfolio is huge, touching the food, fiber and energy that we consume and export around the world. Blanche Lincoln was suddenly transformed from one of the four score or more ciphers in the U. S. Senate to someone who counts. It is a big deal.

So big that this week the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which has scorned her since she went to the Senate in 1999, sang her praises and found the most majestic portrait of her it could find to place at the top of the column. The political firmament shakes.

Some were saying that it virtually assures Sen. Lincoln’s re-election next year. Polls have shown her floundering below 50 percent in job approval and faring poorly against any of a big field of Republican nobodies.

A big committee chairmanship raises Lincoln’s national prestige considerably, but we are not sure it means that much to ordinary Arkansas voters. In the end, her re-election will depend upon whether voters like her instinctively more than her opponent, whoever it will be, and whether they think of her as a person of principle regardless of her stand on specific issues.

Her vacillating stance on nearly everything the past several years — health care, labor reform, tax cuts, the war, climate change, you name it — has damaged everyone’s fair image of her. Maybe her newfound authority will put some starch into her backbone. We hope so. We like Blanche Lincoln.

For sure, the chairmanship will reinforce her standing with some big constituencies: farmers, the forestry industry and the Arkansas-based food and retail giants like Tyson, Walmart and Riceland. They already supported her, but re-electing her now will become a crusade.

There is simply too much at stake. An example: In 2007, Sen. Lincoln blocked the certain passage of a farm-law amendment that would have put a $250,000 cap on agricultural subsidies for any farm operation, a reform sought by urban-state liberals and some conservative Republicans. They had the votes, but Lincoln’s threatened filibuster forced them to abandon it.

Such is the power of the chairman of the Agriculture Committee that nothing she disapproves will ever likely even surface.

Lincoln champions the cause of every Arkansas business, whether it is worthy in the national context or not, and she is now in position to protect and advance their every interest.

That is some potent support in any statewide election.

Let us extend our congratulations to the senator for having achieved such exalted status for our poor state. And let us hope that she uses the power not simply for the protection of parochial interests but balance those interests with the national welfare. We are, after all, Americans first, Arkansans second.