The ill wind that carried away Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was the warm breeze that transported Sen. Blanche Lincoln into the Garden of Eden.
That was the conventional wisdom last week after the musical chairs that followed Kennedy's death elevated her to the chairmanship of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. It was supposed to have cinched her re-election next year. She is, after all, the first Arkansan to chair a major congressional committee since 1977, and it is a big one to boot. Every big farmer in East Arkansas now knows that as long as the Democrats control the Senate he need never fear that reformers will put a $250,000 cap on his farm subsidies because Blanche Lincoln will be standing at the gate.
Monday morning, hell froze over. The staunchly Republican Arkansas Democrat-Gazette penned a long editorial hymn to the senator and her newfound power and never once condescended to call her Miz Blanche. Every agricultural interest in Arkansas is going to be in high cotton, the paper suggested.
The election is over, isn't it?
There is a little problem with the rosy scenario, and it is not merely that big agriculture, the forestry industry, the agriculture-based fuel industries, big food producers like Tyson's and Riceland, the bankers and giant retailers already knew and loved Senator Lincoln's stance on all the issues that are dear to them. They did, and they emphasized it with their pocketbooks.
As all the polls show, Lincoln had a much bigger political problem than the lack of a committee chairmanship. Actually, two problems. In the eyes of most people she has been an insubstantial and weak senator.
Looking insubstantial is a hazard of all senators in their early years, which is why many get beat after a term. People think a senator ought to have clout. Holding the Agriculture gavel will help Lincoln some there.
But rank-and-file voters don't care about chairmanships, and few will ever be able to identify how Sen. Lincoln voted on major bills that affect their lives. Yet they have a sense about her, and an equally generalized sense about the state's other big politicians, who fare better. Their sense is that she vacillates, that she doesn't have a political lodestar, that she votes this way a while and that way a while, that she tries very hard to have it both ways. So a poll of 600 likely voters for the Daily Kos last week showed that 43 percent of the voters viewed her favorably and 49 percent unfavorably, and most of the 43 percent were not enthusiastic.
That doesn't mean that she's doomed to defeat. She isn't. She is a decent, caring and decidedly civil person, which will go a long way, and the Republicans still have to put up someone from the band of neo-Joe McCarthys who are running for the seat. (Excuse me, I should exempt Gilbert Baker from that description. He's carefully avoided, so far, calling the president a socialist.) Whatever the polls say, the maxim holds: you can't beat somebody with nobody.
The popular image is not inaccurate, and Lincoln crafted it herself. From the day she went to the House of Representatives in 1993 she consciously positioned herself squarely in the middle. She stays, for example, right at 50 percent on the abortion-life voting meter. The common wisdom is that this is where Arkansas voters are.
But there are people with moderate impulses, and then there are people who contrive to be middle-of-the-roaders. The risk of such a strategy is that you may please very few people and the rest are indifferent or furious.
Why should conservatives be mad at Blanche Lincoln? Except for the investors' tax cuts of 2003, she voted for President Bush's big tax cuts for the rich, which has added $2.5 trillion to the national debt, although by 2005 she had seen the fiscal calamity that it had caused and begun to vote against extending some of the tax breaks. She also voted for the other Republican initiatives that swelled the national debt to $11 trillion by the first of this year: the Iraq war authorization in 2002, the 2003 Medicare amendments that underwrote massive taxpayer subsidies for the insurance industry and Bush's $700 billion bank bailout. But, strangely, she drew the line at Bush's $16.7 billion handout to keep the production lines going at General Motors and Chrysler. More centrist calculation.
She voted consistently against unions, then when it looked safe she signed as a co-sponsor of a labor bill reducing management's big advantage in collective-bargaining elections that was written into the law in 1947, and then when management called her out she denounced the bill. Does that look weak? Against labor and most Democrats she voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Newt Gingrich's Contract for America Tax Relief Act and the banks' and credit card companies' tough bankruptcy law.
At town-hall meetings she will sometimes defend Congress but she will not counter the ugliest slur against the president from the conspiracy fruitcakes. She votes nearly all the time for the National Rifle Association, including letting people tote their guns into national parks, but she did throw a crumb to the other side, voting to continue the assault-weapons ban. She votes for right-wingers' solution to all problems, “tort reform.”
So the committed conservatives hate her, progressives are miffed and all the rest shrug. She needs a mean, dumb and unpleasing Republican opponent. Her chances are fairly good.