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In Arkansas, Lincoln may have studied the wrong Clinton

By Karen Tumulty

No other national political figure so dominated Blanche Lincoln's election campaign as that of former president and fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton, whose centrist politics she emulated and who campaigned as her most prominent defender.

But looking back, it now seems that the Clinton she should have studied was Hillary.

The strategic flaw in Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign serves as a lesson in what went wrong for Lincoln as well. In positioning themselves as the strongest possible candidates for the general election, both left themselves exposed and vulnerable to a primary challenger more attuned to the shifting currents within their own party.

Clinton's vote for the Iraq invasion made political sense at a time when it looked as though she would breeze through the Democratic primary season. The biggest obstacle between her and the White House, her strategists believed, would be convincing the country to see her as a credible commander-in-chief. What she did not count on was a challenger who could point to a 2002 speech he had given as an Illinois State Senator in which he had warned that the invasion would open the possibility of "occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."

Similarly, many of the things that are now being pointed to as Lincoln's mistakes--things that put her out of step with the Democratic base--seemed smart at a time when it appeared the real race would not come until November.

Her opposition of a public option in health care reform, her decision to join Senate Republicans in blocking the nomination of union favorite Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board, her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act that is a top priority for labor, her support for cutting the estate tax--all of these things were designed to position her as a different kind of Democrat. And all seemed to pose relatively little risk in a state where labor has never been a dominant presence in politics.

But when unions decided to weigh in big in Arkansas, everything changed--for Lincoln, and for her primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Labor spent almost $6 million on advertising to portray Lincoln as an out-of-touch Washington outsider. Lincoln found herself in a spot where she had no room left to maneuver.

Bill Clinton warned that Lincoln's defeat would "send the message to the Republicans and the Democrats: Back off in your corners. Stop talking to each other." The problem was, even in Arkansas, this is a year when both parties were already there.

By Karen Tumulty  |  June 8, 2010; 6:50 PM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  
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Next: Looking ahead: Fiorina vs. Boxer

Comments

Lincoln, the tool of corporate interests, has won the primary. Just goes to prove how stupid Arkansas people are.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | June 8, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Lincoln, the tool of corporate interests, has won the primary. Just goes to prove how stupid Arkansas people are.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | June 8, 2010 11:14 PM | Report abuse

Well, well, well. Karen, are you going to eat crow and update your article? It looks like Blanche Lincoln won in Arkansas thanks to Bill Clinton. Bid Dawg is golden, he bit the nutroots and labor on his home turf!

Posted by: alinosof | June 8, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

Here come's BLANCHE!

Posted by: jeffersonian1 | June 8, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

It takes the worst president of all time plus a financial market melt down to elect a Democrat, and liberals believe they caused a re-alignment.

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Posted by: itkonlyyou108 | June 8, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

If Lincoln had truly been cruising in the AR polls, I doubt a primary challenge would have mattered. Since she was trailing already, AR Dems saw that she was a liability anyway, so they might as well pick a true Democrat. If Halter loses in the Fall, then Dems are no worse off. If Halter wins, then they got rid off unreliable Lincoln for a solid vote that they can count on.

You can see a parallel with Specter. While he voted with the party, he looked like a turn coat who had only switched parties to save his own skin. Specter was a general election liability, so why not replace him with a real Democrat who doesn't have his Specter negatives?

On the other side, you have Republicans throwing KY and FL Senate races in doubt by picking ideology over electability. Even UT may be a problem if Bennett's replacement decides to run on restarting open air nuclear testing in Southern Utah, where thousands of Utahns died of radiation-induced cancer from 1960s Nevada testing.

Posted by: AxelDC | June 8, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

There is nothing "centrist" about slashing the estate tax for The Walton heirs. It means that revenue is reduced, and must be made up by everybody else. How in the DC mind it became a "centrist" or "moderate" position to lose 10's of billions of revenue to hand it over to snotty heirs and heiresses simply amazes me.

Populism is what is in store these days for both the good and the bad. Blanche Lincoln was more concerned about being seen as a "serious centrist" in DC parlance rather than actually being a moderate.

The chamber of commerce knows exactly whose interests Blanche supports. That is why they flooded the state with ads on her behalf.

Posted by: newpairodimes | June 8, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Clinton's warning about Lincoln's defeat was silly. She, like too many Democrats, was simply Republican-lite. That is a losing strategy that will affect many Obama-Democrats. No Dem is going to win over racist 'tea party' psychos or anti-choice terrorists. The Democrats who act like real Democrats and stand for the true agenda of Autumn 2008 will have a change to excite the support base.

Posted by: revbookburn | June 8, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

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