The New York Times dispatched a reporter last week to Helena-West Helena, the hometown of U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, where the local white people might offer a pretty good gauge of broader attitudes by our state's decisive rural conservatives.
A woman lamented Blanche's “bad decisions” even as Blanche's mother sat nearby at lunch.
A man who deals at a casino across the river didn't like that Lincoln had provided a vote, even if a partial and sporadic one, for President Obama on health care.
A farmer said his pocketbook didn't matter as much as it once did, considering a broader state of affairs that troubles him, and that, therefore, Blanche's recent ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee wouldn't dictate his vote as it once would have.
They were mad at Lincoln from the right for being too liberal, even as liberals nationwide ante up to Bill Halter's campaign out of anger at her for being too conservative.
That old Arkansas Democratic finesse, by which people named Clinton and Pryor (and Lincoln) finely balance the liberal interests of their national party with the rural conservatism of their constituency, has blown up on Lincoln.
It's because of Barack Obama, his name, his image, his culture, his other thing. It's because of the bank bailout, the auto bailout, the stimulus, the fear of government health care, a deficit now nearly $2 trillion.
The Times' piece says Blanche's predicament shows how perilous the political center has become amid raging voter anger. Someone on one extreme or the other at least could find a friend now and then.
Steve Patterson, Lincoln's campaign manager, was quoted last week as saying Lincoln is fighting for the very right to be a moderate Democrat.
Moderation is a hard thing to fight for when the whole country has gone mad.
Blanche's challenge is to use TV advertising, mainly, to fashion a narrative for herself that redefines her.
That's what all big-time politics is about, of course.
Halter fashions a narrative for himself as a grocery-bagger who is running for Arkansas values against those evil Washington people, even as he exists in truth as a tool of national liberals and labor unions wanting to punish Lincoln.
Blanche is similarly creative in her long-awaited and suddenly famous introductory television ad last week. Tom Hanks was talking about it on a national cable show, complaining that it represented a politics of “no.” The panelists on “This Week” on ABC were in wonder about it Sunday, finding it supremely odd that a Democrat would run so hard against her own president not in the general election, but the primary.
These folks should go to Helena.
Lincoln's commercial represents one of the best tries I've ever seen. It presents her as an opponent of Obama's most liberal policies, seeking to separate her from her president. It says she doesn't answer to her party, but to the people of Arkansas.
Perhaps most ambitiously of all amid this populist revolt, it presumes to make her the outsider, standing up for reason amid all that childish idiocy in Washington. It closes by calling her “one tough lady,” since Arkies like spunk and independence.
A postscript: There's this left-of-center establishment Democratic lunch group formed under the leadership of Dale Bumpers' son, Brent, that sprang from ad hoc radio advertising that it ran for John Kerry in 2004. These are left-of-center politicos associated with the campaigns of Clinton, Bumperd and Pryor, generally speaking. They call themselves the “blue necks.”
So they got together last week and did a straw vote of Lincoln and Halter. There were 20 votes for Lincoln and 14 for Halter.
That's not really so good for her. She'd need a bigger lead in that group before she could take a deep breath.