Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Keep talking, Sen. Baker

The eight candidates for U.S. senator are having trouble getting traction against one another, which is the first task before any of them starts taking down Sen. Blanche Lincoln or whoever the Democrats nominate in their primary next month.

Gilbert Baker, the very pleasant state senator from Conway who seemed to be the favored Republican before the national party bigwigs persuaded Congressman John Boozman to run, illustrates the problem. To separate himself from the pack, Baker began running ads this week attacking Congress, President Obama, the Democrats, and, of course, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Lincoln. They are responsible for the nation’s economic problems, he suggests.

And maybe Congressman Boozman, too, although Baker won’t say so directly. He just flashes Boozman’s picture on the screen when he’s condemning Congress. He never utters Boozman’s name or identifies him in any way.

Baker attacks Congress regularly for the big bailout of financial institutions in 2008 and, of course, as one of his aides happily pointed out, Boozman voted for the bailout, along with Lincoln. The bank bailout was the act that triggered the tea-party movement across the land, which has morphed into an all-purpose rage against the national government.

“I oppose massive federal bailouts,” Baker said. That puts him in sync with every Republican in the country, including all those who voted for the bailout in 2008 and pushed it ardently, and probably a majority of American voters.

We must give Baker some credit. He acknowledged when talking to reporters about his new ad campaign that Republicans were complicit in the bailout as well as Obama, Lincoln and Pelosi.

But honesty requires that he go further than that. The bailout was a Republican idea, the George Bush administration’s response to what it feared was the impending collapse of the U.S. and global financial systems. Bush’s treasury secretary and his Federal Reserve chairman came to him with the bailout proposal and the president embraced it. He asked that they try to get the Democratic leadership on board with the bailout because the Republicans could not do it alone. Most of the Democratic leadership did go along, reluctantly because American banking was not exactly a Democratic constituency. A number of liberal Democrats balked as well as a gaggle of conservative Republicans.

You will remember that the Republican candidate for president, John McCain, flew back to Washington to urge all of his party to stand united behind the bailout. He knew it would be unpopular but thought it was the right thing to do for the country.

Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, added his imprimatur, although many in the liberal wing of his party repudiated his lead.

Boozman of Arkansas’ Third District was right there with his party and with his Republican president, as he was on every single issue big and small for nine years. Baker has a good point if he’s willing to make it forthrightly.

If Baker and all his fellow candidates are going to run against the nation’s economic plight, which they all agree is the vast federal debt and the expansion of government, then they need to be unambiguous about how it happened. It began with the huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and the simultaneous expansion of government spending on war and medical care. Yes, Boozman voted for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and all the tax cuts that turned four consecutive years of budget surpluses into deficits of historic magnitude. And he voted for the Bush/Republican Medicare prescription drug program and the giant taxpayer subsidy for insurance companies, which sent federal health spending reeling out of control.

But Baker and the others also must acknowledge that all of those were the initiatives of a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress, although a few Democrats like Lincoln went along in nearly every instance.

If he did, Baker could call his campaign the Straight Talk Express. Wait, John McCain tried that and it did not work out so well.

But it would separate him from the pack. No one else among the eight will yield to the truth-telling impulse, so he ought to give it a try.