The Democratic Party and Blanche Lincoln

The Arkansas primary fight illuminates some unpleasant though vital truths about the Democratic establishment

Published June 10, 2010 12:30PM (EDT)

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., speaks to supporters in Little Rock, Ark., after winning the Democratic primary runoff election Tuesday, June 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) (AP)
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., speaks to supporters in Little Rock, Ark., after winning the Democratic primary runoff election Tuesday, June 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) (AP)

(updated below - Update II)

The run-off between Democratic Senate incumbent Blanche Lincoln and challenger Bill Halter, which culminated on Tuesday night in Lincoln's narrow victory, brightly illuminates what the Democratic Party establishment is.  Lincoln is supposedly one of those "centrist"/conservative/corporatist Senators who thwarts the good-hearted progressive agenda of the President and the Party.  She repeatedly joined with Republicans to support the extremist Bush/Cheney Terrorism agenda (from the the Protect America Act to the Iraq War and virtually everything in between), serves the corporate interests that run Washington as loyally as any member of Congress, and even threatened to join the GOP in filibustering health care reform if it contained the public option which Obama claimed he wanted.  Obama loyalists constantly point to the Blanche Lincolns of the world to justify why the Party scorns the values of their voters:  Obama can't do anything about these bad Democratic Senators; it's not his fault if he doesn't have the votes, they insist.

Lincoln's 12-year record in the Senate is so awful that she has severely alienated virtually every important Democratic constituency group -- other than the large corporate interests that fund and control the Party.  That record, along with her extreme unpopularity in Arkansas, is the reason Accountability Now -- the group I co-founded and run in order, among other things, to recruit primary challengers against corporatist incumbents -- targeted Lincoln and why it expended so much effort and resources to recruit Halter into the race.  We knew that most key progressive factions -- grass-roots organizations, progressive blogs, civil liberties groups, and unions -- would want to see Lincoln removed from the Senate, and that's the type of formidable coalition needed to persuade a credible challenger that a 2-term Senate incumbent can be defeated.

So what did the Democratic Party establishment do when a Senator who allegedly impedes their agenda faced a primary challenger who would be more supportive of that agenda?  They engaged in full-scale efforts to support Blanche Lincoln.  Bill Clinton traveled to Arkansas to urge loyal Democrats to vote for her, bashing liberal groups for good measure.  Obama recorded an ad for Lincoln which, among other things, were used to tell African-American primary voters that they should vote for her because she works for their interests.  The entire Party infrastructure lent its support and resources to Lincoln -- a Senator who supposedly prevents Democrats from doing all sorts of Wonderful, Progressive Things which they so wish they could do but just don't have the votes for.

Ordinarily, when Party leaders support horrible incumbents in primaries, they use the "electability" excuse:  this is a conservative state, the incumbent has the best chance to win, and the progressive challenger is out-of-step with voters.  That excuse is clearly unavailable here.  As Public Policy Polling explained yesterday, Lincoln has virtually no chance of winning in November against GOP challenger John Boozman.  And while it would have also been difficult for Halter to beat Boozman, polls consistently showed that he had a better chance than Lincoln did.  That's unsurprising, given how much better non-Washington candidates are doing in this incumbent-hating climate than long-term Washington insiders.  And it's rather difficult to claim that Halter is out-of-step with Arkansas given that they elected him their Lt. Governor.  Whatever the reasons Washington Democrats had for supporting the deeply unpopular Lincoln, it had nothing whatsoever to do with electability.

What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we've been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders:  namely, if the Senate doesn't have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it's not Obama's fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators.  It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable.  But now, in light of Arkansas, nobody should ever be willing to utter that again with a straight face.  Back when Lincoln was threatening to filibuster health care if it included a public option, the White House could obviously have said to her:  if you don't support a public option, not only will we not support your re-election bid, but we'll support a primary challenger against you.  Obama's support for Lincoln did not merely help; it was arguably decisive, as The Washington Post documented today:

LITTLE ROCK -- For all the millions that both sides spent on the bruising Arkansas Senate Democratic primary race, Yvonne Thomas admits she went to the polls not having much of a sense about the candidates.

What she did know, and what turned out to be the only thing that mattered in her decision to cast her ballot for the embattled incumbent Blanche Lincoln, was this: "Obama wanted us to vote for her," said Thomas, who is African American. . . .

The black vote "was definitely something we had to pay close attention to," said campaign manager Steve Patterson the day after Lincoln's victory.

And while the campaign has not yet broken down the results by precinct, the effort appears to have paid off.

On Tuesday, Lincoln beat Halter in all but one of the Arkansas counties with the largest African American populations, said Janine A. Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll; by comparison, in the May 18 primary, he took two.

"Lincoln did very well in those counties, despite the efforts by Halter and the unions to really court black voters," Parry said. "In a race this tight, that kind of activity makes a difference." 

In other words, Obama exploited the trust that African-American voters place in him to tell them something that is just absurd:  that Blanche Lincoln, one of the most corporatist members of Congress, works for their interests.  Bill Clinton did the same with the Arkansas voters who still trust him.  In light of all this, the next time some "conservative" Democrat such as Lincoln plays the Villain Rotation game and opposes some Good, Progressive Bill which the White House pretends to support -- but, gosh darn it, just can't get the 60 votes for -- are we going to have to endure the excuse from Obama loyalists that Obama has no leverage over Democratic members of Congress?

What's going on here couldn't be clearer if the DNC produced neon signs explaining it.  Blanche Lincoln and her corporatist/centrist Senate-friends aren't some unfortunate outliers in the Democratic Party.  They are the Democratic Party.  The outliers are the progressives.  The reason the Obama White House did nothing when Lincoln sabotaged the public option isn't because they had no leverage to punish her if she was doing things they disliked.  It was because she was doing exactly what the White House and the Party wanted.  The same is true when she voted for Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, serves every corporate interest around, and impedes progressive legislation.  Lincoln doesn't prevent the Democratic Party from doing and being what it wishes it could do and be.  She enables the Party to do and be exactly what it is, what it wants to be, what serves its interests most.  That's why they support her so vigorously and ensured her victory:  the Blanche Lincolns of the world are the heart, soul and face of the national Democratic Party. 

In case that wasn't clear enough, the White House -- yet again -- expressed its contempt for progressives when a cowardly "senior White House official" hid behind Politico's blanket of anonymity to mock unions for having "just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise."  That comment was far more serious than mere derision.  It was an attempt to exacerbate the tensions which unions have with their members over union spending on political races  -- a rather ironic sore for the White House to try to pick at given that without massive union spending for Obama, he would not be President.  What the White House is really angry about is that the unions did not spend that money in order to help vulnerable Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats, whose agenda could not be more adverse to union members.  In other words, the White House wants unions and other progressive groups to be nothing more than Democratic Party apparatchiks, whereby they help Democrats get elected purely for the sake of preserving Democratic power, regardless of the policy outcomes that are achieved, and regardless of how hostile those outcomes are to progressives.  The sooner that realization is pervasive, the better.

I'm glad Accountability Now worked so hard to recruit Halter into the race, and am also glad that the coalition of grass-roots and advocacy groups, blogs, and unions which we helped bring together back in December, 2008, expended so much effort to defeat her.  As I wrote when AN first announced its project to recruit primary challengers in mid-2008, the purpose was to:

impose a real political price that [incumbents] must pay when they capitulate to -- or actively embrace -- the right's agenda and ignore the political values of their base. . . . Right now, when it comes time to decide whether to capitulate to the demands of the right, Beltway Democrats think: "If we capitulate, that is one less issue the GOP can use to harm our Blue Dogs." And they have no countervailing consideration to weigh against that, because they perceive -- accurately -- that there is no cost to capitulating, only benefits from doing so, because progressives will blindly support their candidates no matter what they do. That is the strategic calculus that must change if the behavior of Democrats in Congress is to change.

Forcing Blanche Lincoln and the Democratic Party to spend its money on a bitter, draining two-step primary fight obviously makes it much harder for her -- or any other Democratic incumbent who triggers a future primary challenge -- to win the general election. 

The point here, speaking just for myself, was not to put Bill Halter in the Senate.  While I am convinced Halter would have at least been marginally better than Lincoln (he certainly couldn't have been worse), I don't know if he would have been substantially better.  Nor was the point an ideological one -- the real conflict in politics is not Left v. Right or liberal v. conservative, but rather, insider v. outsider.  Lincoln's sin isn't an ideological one, but the fact that she's a corporatist servant of the permanent factions that rule Washington.  The purpose here was to remove Lincoln from the Senate, or, failing that, at least impose a meaningful cost on her for her past behavior.  That goal was accomplished, and as a result, Democratic incumbents at least know there is a willing, formidable coalition that now exists which can and will make any primary challenge credible, expensive and potentially crippling -- even if it doesn't ultimately succeed.  That makes it just a bit more difficult for Democratic incumbents to faithfully serve corporate interests at the expense of their constituents, or at least to do so with total impunity.

Beyond that benefit, the very significant divisions within the Party become a bit more crystallized as a result of this episode.  In response to the White House's complaint that unions did not spend their money to help Democratic incumbents, an AFL-CIO official angrily replied:  "Labor isn't an arm of the Democratic Party."  Of course, that's exactly what much of labor has been up to this point, but the realization that the interests of the Party and these unions are wildly divergent will hopefully change that.  There's clearly a growing recognition among many progressives generally that devotion to the Democratic Party not only fails to promote, but actively undermines, their agenda (ACLU Executive Directory Anthony Romero yesterday began his speech to a progressive conference with this proclamation:  "I'm going to start provocatively . . . I'm disgusted with this president").  Anything that helps foster that realization -- and I believe this Lincoln/Halter primary did so -- is beneficial.

That is really the key point:  it should be apparent to any rational observer that confining oneself to the two-party system -- meaning devoting oneself loyally to one of the two parties' establishments without regard to what it does -- is a ticket to inevitable irrelevance.  The same factions rule Washington no matter which of the two parties control the various branches of government (see this excellent new article from Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson on the Obama administration's role in the BP oil spill, and specifically how virtually nothing changed in the oil-industry-controlled Interior Department once Ken Salazar took over [as was quite predictable and predicted]; Interior employees even refer to it as "the third Bush term").  There is clearly a need for new strategies and approaches that involve things other than unconditional fealty to the Democratic Party, which weigh not only the short-term political fears that are exploited to keep Democrats blindly loyal (hey, look over there!  It's Sarah Palin!) but also longer-term considerations (the need to truly change the political process and the stranglehold the two parties exert).  In sum, any Party whose leaders are this desperate to keep someone like Blanche Lincoln in the Senate is not one that merits any loyalty.


UPDATE:  Digby has more on the White House's petulant, scornful behavior and what it reflects about its actual agenda, as well as the palpable change in progressives' attitude towards the President (though whether that results in anything meaningful -- rather than just the conversion of enthusiastic, steadfast loyalty into reluctant, steadfast loyalty -- is doubtful).


UPDATE II:  The Huffington Post's Sam Stein has a basically good and accurate account of how and why Halter was recruited to run against Lincoln, featuring the work done by Accountability Now.  On a related note, true political hero Daniel Ellsberg explains his views about Barack Obama in an interview with Der Spiegel.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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