Sen. Mark Pryor did something last week that no prominent Democrat in this state today dares to do. He defended the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the hated "Obamacare," and said he was quite proud to have voted for it.
All five Democratic Arkansas members of Congress played key roles in passing the law in their respective houses nearly four years ago, but in the face of a $5 million propaganda deluge in the summer of 2009 that persuaded Arkansans that universal health insurance would ruin their lives, three of them caved and cast nominal votes against the bills they had helped pass so they could say they had opposed the unpopular president's big initiative. Only Pryor and Rep. Vic Snyder of Little Rock stuck by their convictions. Snyder did not run again in 2010.
Governor Beebe strove mightily to implement Obamacare's most controversial features and succeeded, but he has taken pains never to utter a word in its defense. Republicans and Democrats in the Arkansas legislature overwhelmingly voted to implement the biggest feature affecting Arkansas, but only a few Democrats dare to whisper that it is Obamacare.
Mark Pryor might be the last man anyone, especially liberal Democrats, expects to be enshrined in the pantheon of courageous politicians. Only weeks ago he disappointed tens of thousands by voting against a bill to require background checks on gun-show sales to gain favor with people who go nuts over guns.
But there he was talking to two groups about all the good things the Affordable Care Act was already doing for Arkansas people. One forum was the lion's den, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, which was part of the organization that funneled millions into the ad campaign against Obamacare before Congress voted on even a single provision.
Was that undaunted courage or merely recognition that he now has no choice but to defend a vote that he can't take back, as Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Marion Berry tried to do in March 2010 on the reconciliation vote? Both had voted eagerly for the reform bills — in Berry's case, a much more liberal version — and then voted "no" on reconciliation when it was meaningless. (Rep. Mike Ross spoke eloquently of the need for such a law in his home district and cast key votes to keep the more liberal House version alive, but when he saw it was impossible to educate his angry voters on the bill's provisions he voted against the House bill he had worked on and the more conservative Senate bill that became Obamacare.)
A more realistic explanation of Pryor's stance is that he was being a senator.
The Constitution created two houses of Congress, which had to agree on the passage of laws. A lower house, in which members had to face the voters every other year, would be sensitive to politics and the instant mood of voters. In the upper chamber, senators were expected to take the long view, put themselves above momentary passions and do what was best for the country. They were given six-year terms.
So a political scientist might forgive Berry and Ross for their inconstancy and perhaps even Lincoln's cravenness since she was facing an almost spontaneous re-election. Her conflicting votes only disappointed 100 percent of the electorate.
The political path is a little less thorny for Pryor. The last major part of the law will be implemented Jan. 1, 10 months before the election. Obamacare will no longer be a looming catastrophe. People will know whether their Medicare benefits were cut, whether their insurance premiums skyrocketed, whether the government had ordered grandmothers off life support, whether they've lost their beautiful relationship with their doctor, whether the budget deficit ballooned (it's been cut almost in half since Obamacare became law), whether medical care has been rationed and whether any of the other horrors hinted at by Republicans came true.
That doesn't mean Pryor's defense of Obamacare will be easy. His opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, changed the story line a little the other day. He said by voting for Obamacare Pryor was setting the stage for "a single-payer system." That is Medicare for all, which happens to be the health reform that was favored by a vast majority of Americans before Congress opted for the Republican/Mitt Romney plan, which was to just extend the private, employer-based health-care system to everyone. Lots of people may be saying, with a Cheshire grin, "Oh, please don't throw us into that briar patch."