Leader Blues

Friday, March 05, 2010

EDITORIAL >> They’re off to the races

This is just like the good old days (only maybe better) — the days when there were spirited battles for the Democratic nomination for nearly every federal, state and regional political office. It may be better this year because there are lively races for offices in both the Republican and Democratic party primaries. Arkansas voters have an embarrassment of electoral riches.

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter assured Democratic voters a real choice for the highest office the state has to give, the United States Senate.

It is the first time since 1974 that an incumbent senator has had to match wits with a proven competitor who offers to make a better claim on the soul of the party. You remember what happened in that one. The challenger, Dale Bumpers, defeated a five-term senator, the eminent J. William Fulbright, by a landslide. Bill Halter is no Dale Bumpers, but we shall see whether Sen.

Blanche Lincoln is up to that sort of challenge.

Democratic leaders, from former President Clinton and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee down to Arkansas party leaders, despair over the development, believing the old bromide that a challenge in her own party will only weaken Sen. Lincoln for the general election, when she will face an arch-conservative and amply financed Republican. That is apt to be Rep. John Boozman.

We think it will work the other way. Either a triumphant Sen. Lincoln will have grown stronger and more confident by having explained and defended her values against a smart foe, or else the party will go into the fall with a stronger standard bearer who has demonstrated that he is more to the liking of rank-and-file voters. The Republican nominee also will be better for having survived the crucible of a primary in which he has had to vindicate his principles and his record (if any).

Sen. Lincoln’s current low estate in the polls we think derives not so much from the way that she has voted but from her vacillation, especially as she has got closer to the election. Whether it has been union-management elections, health care, climate change, taxes, stimulus spending or any of the socio-religious issues that Republicans love to raise, she has feinted one way and then the other. Most voters admire courage and conviction more than they adhere to a certain litmus test. (We said most, not all.) No voter, we dare say, respects a politician who comes over to his or her side only when the polls show that popular opinion has shifted slightly in that direction.

Lincoln’s problems — Halter’s too — were on display in their first combat this week. Lincoln berated the lieutenant governor for taking in a lot of money from outside the state in the opening days of his race. No matter how much Halter raises from the far reaches, it will be piffling compared with her out-of-state benefaction. Then Lincoln released her first television commercial, which seemed mainly to be an attack on her party, which she said she was proud to say she often voted against in Washington. Denigrating your own party seems to be an odd tactic in your own party primary. In almost the same breath, as if it were a repudiation of her party, she mentioned that she voted against bailing out Wall Street and the auto companies and creating a cheap public-health insurance plan to compete with private companies. The first two were initiatives of the Republican administration, not the current Democratic one.

Halter jumped on her immediately with a little misdirection of his own. He pointed out that Lincoln did indeed vote for President Bush’s $700 billion financial bailout in 2008. But if you played Lincoln’s commercial back you hear that she sneaked the word “more” into the phrase: “I voted against giving more money to Wall Street.…” She (like her likely Republican foe, Boozman) did vote for the $700 billion bailout requested by Bush and his treasury secretary. There were no strings attached to the bank assistance. The taxpayers in effect were going to buy the institutions’ toxic assets.

Barack Obama’s team in January wanted more strings attached before the second half of the money was released to the banks, and Bush courteously sent that proposal to Congress in his last week in office. Public reaction to bailing out the profligate banks was so strong by January that Lincoln and many Republicans who had voted for the first one bailed out on the second one. A more principled stance would have been to oppose the first and vote for the second.

In TARP II, as it became known, the new president wanted to give taxpayers an equity investment in the financial institutions until they repaid the loans and also to spend part of the money to help troubled homeowners instead of giving it all to commercial banks, investment houses and American Insurance Group (AIG). Most people, if they understood the financial maze, might not have liked the second half of the bailout, but they would have liked it better than the first.

Halter sounds like he would be, and would have been, a fierce opponent of corporate bailouts, which is the popular thing right now. But actually he inserts a small proviso that most people probably didn’t catch. He would have been against the financial relief if he could not have inserted some controls over how the money would be spent — not for executive bonuses, for instance.

Halter, an economist, knows that, no matter how profligately it was handled, without the emergency relief the U. S. financial system, and perhaps the world’s, likely would have collapsed and this terrible recession would today be a full-fledged depression. Halter’s clever rhetoric allows him the private satisfaction of being both a populist, satisfying the madding crowd, and a realist.

Oh, and what about his boast that he had to fight the special interests to give the people of Arkansas a lottery and a college scholarship program? What special interests? The United Methodist Church? We’ll hear about the lottery in every Halter commercial.

Still, this is going to be a good season for Democrats and Republicans. Bring it on.