Having learned one terrible lesson in the mad health-care debate, that it is near fatal to appear weak and indecisive, Senator Blanche Lincoln relearned another verity last week. Shifting political fortunes will dispose of some of your best friends.
Cruising toward an easy re-election last spring with record receipts in her campaign treasury, Senator Lincoln was exchanging hymns and gratuities with one of her biggest friends, Stanley Reed of Marianna, the Farm Bureau power and immediate past chair of the University of Arkansas trustees.
Reed was settling $1,000 on her campaign and nominating her for awards for her service to American farmers, and she had just gotten through singing his praises to the United States Senate.
In a lavish speech inserted into the Congressional Record, Senator Lincoln described the farmer and lawyer as “Arkansas through and through” and noted his great contributions to education, which she noted included service on the board of the Lee Academy, where his kids went to school. That had to impress the Senate. Lee Academy was set up in 1969 for white children of Lee County when President Nixon's Justice Department directed the integration of schools in the county. Lee Academy is accredited not by the state of Arkansas but by the Mississippi Private School Association.
But the deluge of spending against health-care reform and her nervous stands during the summer and fall have driven down Lincoln's poll numbers, and last week her friend Stanley Reed announced that he was running against her, as a Republican of course.
Though he can hardly criticize her on any of his pocketbook issues — farm policy, the estate tax and other tax policies — Reed will not be praising Lincoln any more, even for her frequent Republican votes. But he may never get to take her on head to head and have to separate their philosophies.
Reed has much to learn himself about the dynamics of Republican politics. He will have money and clout with business and farm interests, but this is not the Republican Party of yore, where economic interests were all that counted. He may yet identify with the social concerns of the party — abortion, gays, immigrants, prayer — but he will have trouble driving true believers like Gilbert Baker and Jim Holt, presuming he enters the race, from that hallowed ground. Curtis Coleman, a former preacher, enjoys Mike Huckabee's Baptist preacher network and, at the last reckoning, Huckabee's tacit support.
The regional nature of the Republican primary does not favor Reed either. They don't cast many votes in the Republican primary in the Arkansas farm belt. Jim Lindsey, with whom he is yoked in their farm interests and on the university board, is his campaign treasurer, but Lindsey is not that tight with the huge right-wing religious constituency in northwest Arkansas.
Jason Tolbert, the Republican blogger who marks the sparrow's fall in conservative politics, said Coleman had “a Tim Hutchinson problem” but that Reed had “a Blanche Lincoln problem,” which he implied might be worse. He meant that Reed was tied too closely to the Democrat and to Democrats generally. Reed has given money to U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, too. Like Lincoln, Ross sided with Reed and the big farmers against President George W. Bush when he tried to slash government subsidies to wealthy farmers.
From 1996 through 2007, taxpayers sent more than $5 million in cotton, rice, soybean, wheat, corn, sorghum and oat subsidies to Reed's family farms in Lee and St. Francis counties. Figures aren't available for 2008 and 2009.
The new Republican right thinks that's socialism but maybe nobody will bring it up. Testifying at a Senate agriculture hearing at Little Rock in 2005, Reed said the Farm Bureau, which he headed, had always strongly opposed any limitation on federal farm payments.
Back in the great Reagan years, generous government subsidies enabled his family to greatly expand their farm holdings and retire the debt, Reed said, but the deficit hawks in 2005 were trying to prevent that for this generation by putting an income ceiling on farm payments. “These are artificial restrictions that are social policies that do not belong in a farm program,” he said. Lincoln, the new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, agreed with that.
So why is he running against Lincoln? He said he was concerned about the Democrats running up the national debt. If you don't reach back past 1996, his own part of the national debt is only something over $5 million.
Where was he in the Bush-Republican years, when his newfound party was turning three consecutive record budget surpluses from the Bill Clinton years into gargantuan deficits? That $1.4 trillion deficit in the fiscal year that just ended was nearly all the work of George W. Bush: the tax cuts for the rich and corporations, the vast unfunded Medicare expansion in 2003, unfinanced wars, financial deregulation and the economic collapse. One of Bush's few efforts to rein in the exploding deficit was limiting farm subsidies, and it was about the only major initiative Lincoln fought him on.
Who cannot wait for the Lincoln-Reed debates?