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Bill Halter Vs. The Bill Halter

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What's in a name?

"Blue Dog" Democrats, those lovable centrist congresspeople who recently brought you such hits as no health care reform and no health care reform, get their name from the old Yellow Dog Democrats of the Solid South--dyed-in-the-wool partisans from the 1920s who would sooner vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. Former Representative Pete Geren of Texas, who would later be appointed Secretary of the Army by George W. Bush, initiated the canine color swap in 1994 by declaring that conservative members of the party had been "choked blue" by those on the far left. The original Yellow Dogs were unwavering Democrats in large part due to the fact that a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, had successfully led a war against the southern states; 145 years and one alleged ideological choking later, another Lincoln is becoming wildly unpopular among voters in the now solidly Republican South. She shares a name with the former president, but her approach to politics would almost certainly have blanched Honest Abe.

There are politicians who are centrist for the sake of compromise and moderation. There are politicians who are centrist because their own beliefs scatter betwixt and between the party lines. There are politicians who are centrist because they choose to temper their personal ideologies in order to conform to the wishes of a constituency that is more conservative or more liberal than they themselves are. And then there is Senator Blanche Lincoln. Blue Dogs who fit into the first three categories are by and large excellent public servants; though they often frustrate progressives, many of them vote the way they do for understandable reasons given the districts they represent. Senator Lincoln, on the other hand, uses centrism as a cover for a voting record that is wholly explained by calculations and corporate ties.

I have neither the desire nor the real estate to recount Senator Lincoln's long history of corruption in this column, but you can take a look at where her money comes from here and draw your own conclusions. She has a hard-earned reputation in Washington as a single-minded corporatist, and with good reason: the heaps of cash sent to her campaigns by the health insurance industry, oil and gas companies, and lobbyists have resulted in her doing everything in her power to block the public option, prevent regulation of greenhouse gasses, and hinder cap-and-trade legislation. Once upon a time, of course, Senator Lincoln was a big proponent of government-run health care--after all, as recently as October Arkansans supported the public option by a margin of 56% to 37%--but when her difficult reelection campaign began to heat up and the political winds started to shift, the senator quickly changed her tune. On the day Lincoln completed her latest political one-eighty by announcing that she would filibuster any reform package that included a public option, her website still indicated her support for the measure.

Enter Karma. After two terms spent halting bills put forward by the party she claims to represent, including most recently the Employee Free Choice Act, a Farm Bill amendment capping agricultural subsidies, and the expansion of the Clean Air Act, Lincoln is now being challenged in her upcoming Democratic primary by a (relatively) progressive candidate whose actual, given, real-life, Christian name is Bill Halter. It cannot be overstated how perfect this is. Let me repeat: Blanche Lincoln is being challenged for her seat by a man who shares his name with the very same epithet Lincoln's colleagues almost certainly use to refer to her in the Democratic Cloak Room. Has there ever been a more apt name for an upstart candidate running against a legendary obstructionist in the whole history of politics? It's doubtful. If Tom Delay had lost his seat to someone named Jerry Mander, or if Jim Bunning had received a primary challenge from a guy named Tom Crazyoldmanwhohatespoorpeople, perhaps they could be considered cosmic equivalents. Here in the real world, we get Bill Halter, and you can rest assured that Blanche Lincoln doesn't see the humor in it.

It hasn't taken long for progressives to get behind the real Bill Halter. The Arkansas AFL-CIO endorsed him shortly after he declared his candidacy, and EMILY's List recently announced that they were pulling their support for Lincoln in favor of Halter due to her "fail[ure] to hold up her end of the bargain" on women's reproductive rights. Despite an endorsement from a White House that desperately needs her vote on, well, everything, Lincoln continues to face pressure from all sides. Republicans don't like her. Democrats don't like her. Arkansans don't like her. The first campaign ad Lincoln put on the air this month consists essentially of her bragging about obstructing or attempting to obstruct every major policy initiative put forward by the Obama administration. It's a good thing Lincoln considers corporations to be people, because otherwise she'd have no friends.

Aye, but there's the rub. Blanche Lincoln is a twice-elected Democratic senator in a state where Rush Limbaugh is more popular than Barack Obama (true story). Granted, she is a corporate shill of the highest order, but despite her constant failures as a Democrat she is still, politically speaking, a centrist or right-centrist when it comes to voting on most major issues. Herein lies the age-old dilemma for progressives: is it better to stand behind a moderate obstructionist who represents the worst of American politics but who could still in theory hang on to her seat, or back a somewhat progressive challenger and in doing so probably guarantee that the real Republicans take over? Isn't Lincoln, for all her flaws, still better for Arkansans than any of the terrifying candidates awaiting her in the general election? Presidents Obama and Clinton seem to think so. The Netroots, naturally, disagree.

However it ultimately plays out, this primary will test the mettle of the Democratic Party, a party that has long struggled to negotiate the seesaw of political pragmatism versus unabashed principle. If Arkansans are really as conservative as their reputation, then they should elect a Republican to represent their views in the Senate. If they support a public option that will drive down health care costs while lowering the deficit, they should elect Halter. I'm not sure what sort of Arkansan you would have to be to support the reelection of Senator Lincoln; this time around, she should know that name recognition might not be working in her favor.