Columns » Ernest Dumas

Money talks to Blanche


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That $3.3 million that the insurance companies and Republican groups spent on advertising the past few weeks trying to terrify Arkansas voters into making her stop health-insurance reform, Sen. Blanche Lincoln explained Saturday, was all wasted because she does not bend to political pressure, being guided solely by what is right for Arkansas.

All that you can say in defense of such piety is that in the end she did bravely flout the wishes of all those people who stormed her office phones and mailbox demanding that she join the Republican filibuster and not allow Congress to consider any legislation that would help struggling Arkansans insure their families against untreated sickness.

But wasted money? Hardly. Despite her denial, it almost certainly had an effect on her stand if the trail of her opinions on health reform is a guide. But even if she arrived at her straddle on health legislation without the least concern about her re-election, as she said in her floor speech a couple of hours before the vote, the tide of cash and the campaigns by chamber of commerce and allied groups to drive her into the Republican camp left an indelible mark on the electorate and the political climate in which she and the rest of the congressional delegation must navigate. Although every major feature of the House and Senate health bills, taken singly, would win the favor of a big majority of Arkansas voters, the media campaign turned a popular cause sour.

It was not altogether her doing, or her choice anyway, that the industries spent so much money to make the Arkansas electorate the most misinformed in the country or that propaganda terrorists like John Stossel and Dick Morris alighted in Arkansas to feed fears about government schemers killing grandma, raising their taxes, and running up the deficit — none of which the health bill would do. First Lady Barbara Pryor tossed Morris out of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion one evening in 1978 when she discovered his mendacity, but he keeps coming back to trick gullible Arkies for one or another politician — Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee — and now for the profiteers.

Because she was the only Democratic senator in a John McCain state who was considered vulnerable in 2010, Senator Lincoln was going to reap a blizzard of nasty commercials anyway, but she invited all the allied foes of health reform to join the fray by insinuating in the summer that she might oppose a strong Democratic health plan and might go along with a Republican filibuster. She and Arkansas voters became the key to blocking medical and insurance reform.

I do not recall another Arkansas politician getting into a predicament where he or she was the singular object of a brutal national crusade, where the outcome seemed to rest on his or her act and where the stakes were so high for so many — not least her party and the president. There are egotists who would relish the role, but Senator Lincoln did not sound comfortable in it.

Her good poll numbers had plunged so far in a few months that any of a mounting collection of buffoons and jackstraws was a threat to her re-election. Her base was shaky. When she finally broke the tension and cast the only vote that she could ever conceivably have cast — to take up, debate and amend the health-insurance bill with all the rest of her party and the independents — there was no victory to savor. Republicans attacked her for selling out the country, and Democrats fumed.

She served notice on her party and the president that if the final bill did not suit her to a T she would use her power as the pivotal 60th vote to kill health reform and deliver a historic victory to the Republicans. She will scuttle reform if it includes any semblance of public coverage that would interfere with the insurance monopoly. On that she apparently has one ally, the turncoat Joe Lieberman, and perhaps another in the Democratic senator from Nebraska. Democrats may try to fashion a flexible public option that could win over Maine's Republicans in their stead.

Her improbable stand suggests more strongly than her denial that the $3.3 million campaign did take a toll. She repeated the mantra of the Republican campaign that the government had no business in health insurance. She wanted no part of “government-run” health care. Back in the summer, she wrote an article for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette saying that a government plan or cooperatives was needed to provide some price competition to the insurance monopolies. She took that off her website Monday.

Only a month ago she was praising Medicare and Medicaid, along with Social Security, as the greatest models of insurance and social services in history. Medicare, Medicaid and veterans health services qualify as “robust government plans” — her description Saturday of the kind of option that would cause her to kill health reform. The heavily qualified public options in the Senate and House bills would never be called robust.

Lincoln explained her shift by worrying that someday the premiums and subsidies for the public plan might come up short of covering claims, and it would have to be bailed out by the taxpayers like banks, automakers and the economy.

The bill she opposes actually prohibits that, but she's right: You never know what sort of mess a reckless administration can get the country into. You only have to think back to 2003 when the Bush administration sped Medicare toward bankruptcy before it did the country by giving massive subsidies to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries without paying for them. Oh, never mind. She voted for that.


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