It is never a tribute to the savvy of voters when an election degenerates into a battle of surrogates or whipping boys, to borrow a great institution from the Tudor kings, who when the prince misbehaved had his best friend cudgeled.
Democracy depends upon the voters not being gulled so easily. But that is what we have in 2014 in Arkansas — and in many other places as well.
If you are a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, or even the state legislature, your opponent is Barack Obama and maybe his evil friends, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Why shouldn't you run against them? Since 2010 they have supplied the angst for many a Republican victory and you won't have Obama for another election after this one.
Democrats have badly needed to find their own stand-ins when the Republican candidates are themselves not quite scary enough. They may have found them in the Koch brothers, David and Charles. It remains to be seen whether the Kochs, who between them are rich enough to run the whole state of Arkansas from their hip pockets for the next 16 years, can be made to be as scary as the black man from Chicago who signed the Affordable Care Act and then killed Osama bin Laden.
Probably not, but they are the best the Democrats have. They are the best that Sen. Mark Pryor has at the moment. If the election were to be decided on political philosophy and the self-interest of voters or even on personality, Pryor would run away with it. His cautious middle-of-the-road stance on just about everything, which dismays liberals and enrages archconservatives, is where most voters think they are. Only the tea-party right agrees with Rep. Tom Cotton's position on much of anything — Social Security, Medicare, the rest of Paul Ryan's spending ideas, foreign policy and warmaking, wages or you name it.
But those are matters about which voters know very little and Pryor and his party have had and will have little success in educating them. Neither the president nor the Democrats in Congress who wrote it or voted for it could explain or convincingly promote the Affordable Care Act, at least with anything like the cleverness, gusto and often deceit of the opposition. So now Pryor will face an electorate hostile to the health reforms that he voted for, although the only 300,000 or so Arkansans directly affected by it so far — those who have won health insurance, most for the first time, or benefited from expanded coverage or benefits — should be grateful to him. But it is safe to say that many, perhaps most, of them won't connect their better fortunes to either Obamacare or Pryor.
So we have a proxy race for the Senate between Barack Obama and the Koch brothers, who with eight months to go have spent $30 million on attack ads against Pryor and the handful of other Democratic senators who are considered vulnerable this year.
Whatever portals you go to on the Internet, you are liable to come across ads warning about Pryor's "lies" or mischief. When you click on them, Barack Obama morphs into the scene. Now you're seeing a few retaliations with the Kochs as the demons.
They actually make pretty persuasive ones, maybe more persuasive than Obama as a surrogate for Pryor. Pryor has been less supportive of the president than any other Democrat in the Senate. The Kochs' $80 billion in personal wealth includes vast holdings in oil, gas, coal, pipelines and manufacturing, including ownership of much of the paper industry in Arkansas and across the country. The price for owning pivotal congressional seats and legislative factions in states like Arkansas, where their interests are so manifestly subject to pollution regulation and taxation, is trivial compared with the benefits. Despite throwing tens of millions of dollars at defeating Democrats in 2012, Charles Koch added $6 billion to his net worth that year, according to Forbes.
Political bogeymen are nothing new. Al Smith and John F. Kennedy had to run with the pope as their proxy. Sen. Dale Bumpers' opponents, Asa Hutchinson and Mike Huckabee, regularly accused him of voting with Sen. Ted Kennedy, so widely despised in the South, 96 or 98 percent of the time.
They're absolutely wrong, Bumpers would reply. "Kennedy votes with me 98 percent of the time." He was going to have a stern talk with Kennedy about leaving the traces that 2 per cent.
Humor doesn't work in this climate, and Pryor doesn't have the Bumpers touch anyway. Who does?