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.
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