Columns » John Brummett

The 36th most liberal?



Here is the text of a television commercial you might expect to see next year:

“It's official. National experts agree. Blanche Lincoln is the most liberal member of Arkansas's congressional delegation.

“She's even more liberal than Vic Snyder, who has opposed bans on partial birth abortion and once even refused to vote for a resolution condemning Saddam Hussein.

“This isn't a race about personality or popularity. This race is about the values you want representing you in the U.S. Senate. And the evidence is plain: Blanche Lincoln has not represented them. She has represented Pelosi values.

“Vote for yourself, for good Arkansas values. Vote for (whoever turns out to be the Republican candidate to challenge Lincoln's re-election next year.)”

Such a commercial would cite the National Journal's rankings for 2009 of the liberal and conservative ratings of all members of Congress, House and Senate. The rankings are based on more than 70 issues, such as whether to provide health insurance vouchers to native Americans, reduce the alternative minimum tax without a budgetary offset and require high-income Medicare recipients to pay higher premiums for Part D prescription drugs.

I'm not saying this commercial would be fair. I'm not saying it would be right. I'm not saying I wouldn't throw a shoe at the TV screen.

It would be accurate enough for politics, though.

This magazine's annual ratings came out Friday. Lincoln, in fact, did have — narrowly — the highest liberal rating among Arkansas's six delegates to Washington.

These were the ratings by which Barack Obama was listed as the most liberal senator last year. He got elected president anyway, yes. But more to today's point: How did he do in Arkansas? Ouch. Thirty-nine percent.

Republicans look at that 39 percent and salivate. They understand that Arkansas Democratic politics at the state level is practiced in such a way as to provide distance from national party liberalism. But they wonder how and why an Arkansas Democrat in that very national arena could keep that distance.

I suspect Blanche is getting ready to show them.

With a rating of 50 representing absolute moderation, Lincoln had a liberal rating of 65.4, which was only mildly left, kind of baby blue, and the 36th highest in the Senate.

Considering that party-line voting on the Democratic side would weight one to the liberal side, and vice versa, it is worth nothing that Lincoln was in the bottom half of her party, 36th out of 50 Democrats in the Senate last year.

Washington's Patty Murray had a 92 liberal rating and New York's Hillary Clinton an 82.

But  we were talking about Arkansas.

Mark Pryor had a rating of 56.8, the 44th highest, though he actually was higher than Lincoln on economic policy.

House comparisons with Senate ratings are not just or valid, because the votes on bills and amendments and resolutions aren't the same. But, again, the subject today is electoral politics, not justice or validity. Snyder's liberal rating was 62, Marion Berry's 59.5 and Mike Ross's 56.3.

So what does all this really mean about Blanche Lincoln?

It means she votes with the Democratic Party frequently, a tad more than Mark Pryor. But she is, of course, not liberal. She is centrist. She's against the estate tax, for heaven's sake. She just announced a host committee for a big fund-raiser featuring Joe Biden. Several very conservative Arkansas businessmen are on it, which surely drives Republicans nuts.

She does a very thorough job representing her constituency, both through her advocacy of Arkansas farmers and her singular leadership in getting tax credits applied in a refundable way even to people so poor they don't pay income taxes.

Now she sits on the Senate Finance Committee, to which President Obama has pretty much assigned the details of health care reform. She'll represent Arkansas's often-peculiar interests vitally in that process.

So I say this: Liberal, liberal, liberal. Blah, blah, blah.

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