A reporter from Politico asked U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln on Saturday if Bill Halter was more liberal than she.
Her answer two weeks ago would have been pretty much this: “Oh, yes. Just look at who's behind him, national labor unions and moveon.org. I've always been a moderate, a centrist, a pragmatist, trying to represent the strong independent streak of Arkansas people. That's why the national liberals have come after me. I think he's more representative of an extreme national liberal agenda and that it's an agenda not always in tune with Arkansas Democrats.”
That's been the essence and mantra of Lincoln's success over two decades in Arkansas politics. She's a middle-of-the-roader who gets the business and farm vote while hanging on to traditional Democratic constituents such as African-Americans.
But here is what she said Saturday in answer to that question: “No. He's just trying to get elected.”
I don't know which part of the answer was more jarring — that she wants to be a co-equal liberal with Halter or that she wants to downplay his genuine liberalism or that she believes it serves Halter's victory prospects to be seen as more liberal.
In any event, conventional Arkansas political wisdom was last seen blowing out of the state Saturday afternoon in one of those major gusts.
There are a couple of possibilities. One is that Blanche flubbed the question.
The other, more likely, is that liberalism has become — for the moment, and in a Democratic primary — less a detriment to election in Arkansas than incumbency. While Blanche can't do anything about incumbency, she can try to re-shuffle the rest of the deck.
It's also likely that Lincoln senses that Halter's challenge suddenly threatens to encroach on enough traditional Democratic support that she needs a curious course correction by which she'd like the liberalness to be kind of a wash.
Liberal, it turns out in this case, is a standard she wouldn't mind bearing at least a subtle share of.
The first sign of that was her putting out two weeks ago the most liberal bill on derivatives regulation now on file in Congress.
The second was the mailer I received at home from her campaign earlier in the week. It showed a pretty picture of Lincoln hugging her dear friend Barack Obama.
Her answer to Politico also might have had something to do with the fact that this interview took place moments after Halter had outper-formed her in a debate before newspaper editors. And Halter had done it, in part, by pummeling her for being historically too cozy with the Goldman Sachses of the world.
It gets curiouser and curiouser.
For Blanche's partner in the Senate, traditional centrist Mark Pryor, the mantra has always been “put Arkansas first.” But the dynamic is now such that, for Lincoln, it may be less a matter of putting Arkansas first and more a matter of putting Wall Street last, in a tie with Washington.
If it's true that incumbency, not liberalism, is now the heaviest negative baggage to carry, then the candidate match-ups for the fall become much more intriguing.
It means Republicans would be better off in November nominating Gilbert Baker than John Boozman, since Baker is not a federal incumbent, but merely a less-beleaguered state senator.
It means the Democrats would be better off nominating Halter than Lincoln, except that, if the Republicans nominated Baker, a Baker-Halter contest would contain no federal incumbent and leave Halter's associative liberalism as the dreaded heaviest baggage.
If both Lincoln and Boozman survive their primaries, including likely runoffs, Blanche will be the most vivid incumbent, meaning the holder of the office in question. And now she'd also be the woman who said in April that she and that labor candidate from moveon.org were equivalent liberals.
So, for fun, let's rank the Big 4 this way, from strongest to weakest for the general election:
1. Gilbert Baker, being neither a federal incumbent nor liberal.
2. (tie) John Boozman, being a federal incumbent, but not liberal, and Bill Halter, being liberal, but not a federal incumbent.
4. Blanche Lincoln, being the most direct federal incumbent and, now, also self-professed and self-confessed as no less liberal than the guy put in the race by the national liberal network.