Columns » John Brummett

Blanche, Mark stay put with Democrats

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When it came to changing Social Security and confirming conservative judges, the White House thought it might pick up a couple of moderate and timid Senate Democrats from a certain Southern state that went for George W. Bush by nine points. That would be the charmingly schizophrenic state we live in, this land of nationalized rivers and manmade lakes, of mountainous prosperity and Delta deprivation, of dry counties with lots of wet spots, of gambling aversion and a leading prep race for the Kentucky Derby, of a confounding political dynamic that reflects all those contradictions and more. The senators would be Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor. It had to be Arkansas. No other Southern state has two Democratic senators. Most have nary a one anymore after the November massacre. It could be argued that Blanche and Mark got elected in spite of their Democratic affiliation. They did culturally conservative things more typical of the dominant contemporary Southern political form: the white evangelical Republican. You know, hunting, praying in public, showing off adorable kids and, in Pryor’s case, employing a housekeeper not so good with English. As the Washington Post was analyzing the other day, Blanche and Mark have stayed put with the Democrats — so far. In part it’s because Nevada’s Harry Reid has been an effective majority leader. It’s also because Bush and the Republicans may well be doing the one thing that could derail them. That would be so overly obliging their extremist base that they scare off moderates who decide elections. I refer to the extreme anti-government conservatives who oppose the very concept of Social Security, and to the Church Lady types who believe federal judges must stop abortion and should have kept Terry Schiavo artificially fed. Lincoln is pivotal on Social Security. She sits on the Finance Committee, where such measures are considered. If Democrats were to bail out Bush with a negotiated compromise on Social Security, she’d be in those private meetings. She went along with the White House, you’ll recall, on that quarter-loaf Medicare prescription drug benefit. So far, though, her position on Social Security has been simple: She opposes what the Bush administration is proposing. It was Pryor who said oddly and ominously the other day that he’d consider some kind of Social Security middle ground if it came from the White House, even, if necessary, by “back channels.” But that sign of jellied knees was belied a couple of days later. In a conference telephone call with Arkansas journalists, Pryor blasted the tactics of those in the politically active evangelical Christian right who are pressuring Republican senators to do away with the filibuster by which a minority can deny a vote on judgeship nominations, and who, Pryor charged, are claiming narrow-mindedly that true Christians are obliged to agree with them. He suggested that one can be a Christian and accept the long-standing practice allowing a filibuster in the Senate. Like John Kerry and Wes Clark talking defense, Pryor would appear to offer a rare Democratic credibility on Christian conservatism, being, after all, a professed Christian conservative himself. Pryor seems to have only one major difference, actually, with the extreme Christian conservatives who now threaten to turn Dr. Bill Frist into a pretzel. It’s that he can be practical, which is to say free of intolerant fanaticism. His position on abortion is this: It’s wrong, but doing away with Roe vs. Wade would simply throw the matter back to the states and create a hopeless mishmash by which whether a woman got a safe and legal abortion in America would depend on where she lived or how much money she had to travel. I think that’s precisely what America thinks. And I think Pryor can take on the intolerant fanatics and survive, especially in a state where politics seldom follows philosophy or logic.

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