Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Democrats fear tsunami

Both congressmen from our parts picked one frosty week in January to announce that they had had enough and would not run for re-election. Marion Berry of the First District and Vic Snyder of the Second started their congressional careers together in 1997 and now will go together into that good night of private repose.

Two men could not be further apart in style and personality — Berry the inveterate hayseed, outspoken and unabashedly partisan, Snyder the courtly loner, reserved and always solicitous of even his meanest critics. They were not so far apart on matters of substance, both breaking ranks with Southerners last fall to vote for the controversial health insurance reform. In a sharp break with form last summer Snyder voted for a clean-air bill opposed by Berry and the other four members of the Arkansas delegation and then badgered all the rest to debate him on the subject, five on one, on the public television network.

Berry told him, in effect, to get lost.

Their sudden, consensual and simultaneous leave-taking of politics, immediately after the high-profile election of a Republican to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, had all the pundits wondering this week if a political tsunami is in store for Arkansas this year. If polls are good evidence, the state’s senior senator, Blanche Lincoln, is in deep trouble and the sitting Republican congressman from North Arkansas, John Boozman, is emboldened to surrender his safe seat and run against her and the nine other Republicans who are after the seat.

Is Arkansas, the purest Democratic state in the nation in terms of political offices, about to become a Republican state like the rest of the South?

That could be, although we don’t read the signs quite that way, yet. But 2010 will bring the biggest shakeup in the state’s representation in the national councils since 1992, when voters replaced three of Arkansas’ four members of the U. S. House of Representatives. The other had been elected only two years earlier, so Arkansas, which had lived for a century by seniority in the Congress, suddenly had the least influence of any state in the House of Representatives.

Both Berry and Snyder said the timing of their announcements was only coincidental with the tumult over the Massachusetts election. Snyder at 62 has four infant boys and a fragile wife at home at Little Rock, and he said he could not be an absentee father at such a critical juncture in their lives. He probably would have had a tough race for re-election, but he had never seemed fazed by the prospect of electoral defeat. Berry, whose polls showed him winning re-election overwhelmingly, was said to be agitated over the appearance that he might be running from a fight. At 68, his health and energy are flagging. He said he wanted to go back to his farm at Gillett and relax. Let’s take them at their word.

But it is hard to believe that the hateful political climate did not play some role in their decisions. If the time is approaching to retire, what better time than right now? We remember Sen. Dale Bumpers’ retirement in 1998, although there was no sign of an opponent. He said bitter partisanship had transformed the Senate into a far unhappier place than it was when he went there in 1975 and found himself working closely with Republicans from Illinois, Vermont, Rhode Island, Iowa and Oregon. He couldn’t abide the hatred, and he didn’t want to be there anymore.

Every member of the delegation had been besieged by wrathful and sometimes threatening telephone calls, e-mails and letters. Snyder and his wife were famously set upon at dinner one night by a gaggle of Republican women and denounced for his vote to extend health insurance to poor Arkansans.

Part of that wrath was engendered by the great tide of advertising and propaganda from industries whose profits were threatened by elements of the health bills and that accused Democrats and the president of plotting a “government takeover” of medicine and of trying to take away their health coverage. But much of the unhappiness is deeper and almost unavoidable.

The nation is into the third year of the worst recession since the 1930s. People knew whom to blame in 2008 and they turned out Republicans in droves, and while the economy was in a freefall of the magnitude of 1929-30, they gave the White House to a Democrat.

President Obama did not contribute in any way to the recession, nor is the mammoth and ballooning national debt much of his making. He did not deregulate financial institutions or encourage the reckless risk-taking and abuse that undermined the global financial system. He did not start the wars or fatten insurance and pharmaceutical profits from Medicare, which sent budget deficits soaring after 2003. It was not his idea to bail out the commercial and investment banks or the carmakers with tax dollars, although as a senator and presidential nominee he acquiesced.

Regardless of their genesis, all those problems are now his — and Democrats’. They may fault voters’ short memories, but that is a fact of political life. Of course, the vast majority of Arkansas voters never cottoned to Barack Obama, so he has not had a reservoir of good will to squander. They are willing to believe the worst about him.

The disquiet, suspicion and wrath of ordinary people are portable, too. Vic Snyder, Marion Berry, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor and, yes, even Rep. Mike Ross in the Fourth District carry the unfortunate baggage of being part of the team that was supposed to fix things and couldn’t, at least not in one year. You don’t ask a man who has lost his job and can’t find one or who lives in fear of that predicament to be patient.

It is better this year to be just not in charge of anything. A Republican, in other words. But in Arkansas that still may not be quite enough.