Columns » Max Brantley

Halter v. Lincoln

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Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's decision to challenge U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary wasn't a big surprise. In recent days, his camp had worked its way into a number of national stories critical of the incumbent senator. Also, liberal voices had predicted his entry for a week or so. They included Daily Kos and Moveon.Org, which speak for the netroots money machine.

One liberal interest group in Washington went so far Monday as to describe Halter as its first “recruit.” Halter had met with key figures of this blog in Washington. Its potential to raise union campaign money was a factor in his considerations. But, really. Do you want to be seen as a liberal blog's tool? It's one of many indications of outsiders' tone-deafness to Arkansas politics. Such boasts don't help Halter.

Halter vowed to represent Main Street, not Wall Street. There's a hint of irony in his adoption of this cliche. The Rhodes scholar and Stanford grad made millions in high-tech investments. He made enough that he doesn't have to hold down a full-time job like the rest of us.

It was ironic, too, to hear Halter inveigh against Washington. He worked in the Clinton White House. He held the No. 2 spot at the Social Security Administration.

His professed little-guy populism is stained, too, by his greatest achievement. Bill Halter created the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery almost single-handedly. It was a smash hit at the ballot box. News reports of big winners and the avid play of thousands of Arkansans contribute to the notion that this is a political winner. His first TV ads, again featuring his old high school football coach, indicate as much.

But the lottery also happens to be the single biggest reason to doubt Bill Halter's good judgment. Would a good progressive – as the eastern bloggers see Halter – really use the fool's gold of a lottery to win higher political office? Lotteries transfer money (even if voluntarily) from poor people into the pockets of mostly middle-class beneficiaries, particularly when applied to college scholarships. Over time, the lottery proceeds will be more than offset by college fee increases, if experience elsewhere is a guide. In the long run, the lottery won't make college more affordable, in part because legislators will resist extraordinary efforts for colleges. They'll believe “the lottery took care of that.” The lottery creates no additional money for colleges; it merely replaces existing resources, often for those who already had means to get there. (Recipients aren't complaining, of course.)

Halter's greatest strength is his opponent. Lincoln even singled out Arkansas industry as a particular concern in her pre-announcement statements. No kidding. Her record of obedience to the special interests is excellent. By proclaiming centrism as her greatest strength, she only emphasized her lack of great public passions, save taxpayer subsidies for Big Agri and estate tax relief for billionaires. In the process, she insulted all of us who don't believe universal health care, human rights and a clean environment amount to “extremism.”

Will Halter run to the left of Lincoln? In the beginning, he issued carefully calibrated, if modestly hopeful, statements on health care, card check and cap-and-trade. Perhaps he'll surprise me, beat Lincoln and stand tall on these and other key issues to beat whatever male Republican version of Blanche Lincoln wins the GOP's crowded primary. This seems a lot to expect of him — and Arkansas voters.

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