Sen. Lincoln's missteps put her at risk in today's Ark. runoff

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; 1:52 PM

Blanche Lincoln's predicament in Arkansas can be attributed to any number of factors: an angry electorate determined to shake up the status quo; a sense that she has spent too much time in Washington and lost touch with her farming roots; the fact that moderates just aren't in fashion these days.

But some of Lincoln's deepest wounds are self-inflicted. After years of cautious maneuvering, the Democratic senator committed a series of blunders that riled labor unions and other liberal groups and that added new obstacles -- creating an opening for primary challenger Bill Halter in Tuesday's runoff -- to what already was shaping up to be a difficult general election battle for a third term.

Lincoln's first mistake came in April 2009, when she reversed herself on the Employee Free Choice Act, the "card check" bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions. For labor groups, the act was a top priority, and they were counting on Lincoln's support to secure the 60 Senate votes needed to break a filibuster. But the senator turned against the measure, saying the economic downturn had caused a change of heart.

Then, as President Obama's health-care overhaul moved through the senate, Lincoln ran into the buzz saw of the public-option debate. Liberal groups had rallied around a government insurance option as the litmus test of a loyal progressive. At first, Lincoln seemed to be on board, writing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in July: "Individuals should be able to choose from a range of quality health insurance plans. Options should include private plans as well as a quality, affordable public plan or non-profit plan that can accomplish the same goals as those of a public plan."

But by Sept. 1, Lincoln had changed her mind. "I would not support a solely government-funded public option," she said at an event in Little Rock. "We can't afford that."

There were other missteps, less obvious but duly noted by Lincoln's colleagues in the Senate and by competitors back home in Arkansas.

On the campaign trail, she continued to champion old-style moderate causes like lowering the estate tax -- an issue that helped distinguish Lincoln as a player during President George W. Bush's first term. Liberal blogs mocked her mercilessly. "Don't you feel the urgency people?!" read one entry on "There are desperate millionaires out there who will pay higher taxes UNLESS WE ACT NOW!!!"

After a period of arduous hand-wringing, Lincoln voted for the Senate health-care bill in December. But when a package of fixes reached the Senate floor in March -- the product of final negotiations with the House -- Lincoln voted no, citing procedural concerns about the special budget rules that protected the fixes bill from a filibuster. But the package also included such popular items as additional Medicare prescription drug coverage for seniors and Pell Grants for college students, as Halter has reminded primary voters.

When Lincoln finally tried to move to the left, the effort backfired in some respects. As chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Lincoln was charged last month with writing the key section on derivatives trading for the financial regulatory overhaul bill that the Senate approved last month. Democratic negotiators were expecting weak tea, and Lincoln delivered moonshine.

Her harshly restrictive proposal drew heavy criticism from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former Fed chairman and Wall Street critic Paul Volcker and chief banking regulator Sheila Bair. It is certain to be diluted in the upcoming House-Senate conference on a final bill.

Win or lose in Tuesday's runoff, Lincoln's stumbles over the past year are further proof that even the pros are struggling to find their footing in today's volatile political landscape. For years, Lincoln was regarded as one of the most durable Democratic moderates, a staunch business ally with a populist touch.

But like Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, who was crushed last week running as a conservative Democrat in his primary for governor, Lincoln may have entered the 2010 cycle too fixated on positioning herself for the general election. Once she woke up to Halter's primary threat, she may have overcompensated, hurting her credibility as a legislator and a pro-business Democrat with her unworkable derivatives proposal.

In an interview Tuesday on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe," Lincoln was asked by journalist Mark Halperin to acknowledge mistakes in how she had approached the race. Why did voters think she was too much about Washington, and not enough about Arkansas?

"I think I've worked very hard for Arkansas in Washington," Lincoln retorted. "The problem is I'm being totally misrepresented."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company