In the Republican congressional race in the Third District of Northwest Arkansas, Rogers Mayor Steve Womack keeps flirting with good answers and these flirtations keep getting called blunders.
It's a matter of place and time.
The place is one of the most solidly conservative districts in the country, where pragmatic centrism can be a vulnerability.
The time is one of uncommon fear, anger and backlash over a center-left regime in Washington. It turns that vulnerability into an outright vice.
The hottest candidate in the region right now, the demagogic Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith, couldn't even get elected judge in his home county in 2008. But the times they are a changin'.
DeLay is making like a modern-day Orval Faubus or Ross Barnett or George Wallace. He wants to stand in the hospital door, figuratively speaking.
He calls for people to disobey this new law requiring them to get health insurance. Please understand that he doesn't call for people to sue the law as an overreach of federal authority. He says to break it.
So DeLay keeps chortling as Womack keeps slipping up with these flirtations with reason.
That is to say that the guy talking sensibly gets in more trouble than the guy talking about breaking the law. Welcome to 2010 in America.
Womack first got heard seeming to suggest receptiveness to some unspecified path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which he promptly took back. DeLay is on record from his last demagogic congressional bid, against John Boozman nearly a decade ago now, as falling somewhere to the intolerant right of Jim Holt on immigration.
Then Womack got caught talking about how the federal government might help people get healthier and save itself Medicare and Medicaid money by entering into partnerships with local governments for “wellness centers” of the type he touted in Rogers.
“Billion-dollar boondoggle,” cried DeLay, saying the federal government shouldn't take our tax money and spend it on gyms and spas.
Then there was the thing that happened Friday at a candidate forum in Fayetteville. It led a right-winger to phone me Saturday morning and say the Republican congressional race effectively had ended the day before with Womack's implosion.
It seems the candidates got asked what to do long-term about bankruptcy-bound Medicare and that the question was phrased in Charlie Rose style, meaning with several potential answers, one of them a tax increase, enumerated.
Womack said everything needed to be on the table for discussion.
DeLay pounced. He said Womack had just called for consideration of a tax increase and that it “boggles the mind.”
Womack tried to recover from being reasonable, saying DeLay was putting words in his mouth. But then, asked to follow up by reporters afterward, Womack said he simply meant that “never” and “always” are words he tries to avoid.
So you have one guy — DeLay — saying “uninsured now, uninsured forever,” in essence, while Womack is trying to engage in reason when reason is out of season.
All of this probably works to the benefit of DeLay or a third candidate, ever-unnoticed Cecile Bledsoe of Rogers, who is sitting politely by with a pleasant smile and hoping people will reject the flirtations with reason of the one guy and the demagoguery of the other.
By the way, just so you'll know: Sometime in the next decade we're going to have a serious discussion about a national value-added tax so that we can get this deficit down before we all become wards of the Chinese.
And it'll be fair. Let's not blame the politicians for the deficit and debt. Let's blame ourselves. We took the tax cuts, embraced the earmarks, started the wars, and recoiled when they tried to cut spending on our health care.
That's me saying that. Don't blame poor old Steve Womack.