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WASHINGTON — A video camera captures one side of a conversation between Sen. Blanche Lincoln, incumbent Democrat from Arkansas, and one of her [then] 10-year-old twin boys as she drives along a freeway wearing a cell phone headset.
“Why don't you turn your Game Cube off and practice your piano for a little while, OK?” she instructs.
The clip is from the 2007 documentary, “Fourteen Women,” about the unique stresses faced by Lincoln and her female colleagues in the U.S. Senate, especially those with young children.
Checking in with family on the way to and from Capitol Hill every day is just a small part of what, for most, would be an exhausting routine. But if Lincoln, 48, is to create any quality time with her family at her suburban Washington home, she has few moments to waste. That's why she wears out her Crock Pots and stays in close contact with husband Steve, a Washington area physician, in case something happens to one of the now 12-year-old twins, Reece and Bennett, at their public school.
The year 2010 doesn't hold promise for stress reduction. She's up for re-election and poll numbers that put her below 50 percent seem to beg for a Republican opponent, if you believe the GOP's frequent posturing on the subject.
Stress or no, her down-home Helena manners rarely fail her. When a reporter is ushered into her spacious and recently renovated quarters in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, she immediately springs from her desk and comes across the plush blue carpet to greet him. “You taking care of yourself?” she asks.
The reporter mumbles something about how he's trying to, and she says “It's tough, let me tell you.” Lincoln has recently undergone some back surgery herself.
Her desk is clean and orderly, not strewn with policy memos or articles. Political knick-knacks, pictures of her husband, and books and pictures highlighting Arkansas are in their proper places filling the cabinets on the far side of the room.
With two aides sitting nearby, she invites her guest to sit on a couch while she takes a seat immediately in front of a nearby coffee table, one that just happens to have the latest full-color pictures of her twins.
From time to time in the 30-minute interview she will throw her neatly coiffed brunette hair back, but for the most part sits with her hands on her knees and initiates the conversation: “So what did you want to talk to me about?”
Current politics is a good place.
This year marks Lincoln's 10-year anniversary in the U.S. Senate and it might turn out to be the most pressurized yet. Facing re-election, she is widely regarded as a key centrist vote for President Obama to pursue if he is to move his ambitious agenda, one that some analysts say is filled with issues especially controversial with “red” state constituencies such as Arkansas's. Even with Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's crossover to the Democrats, that remains the case. Lincoln, like Specter, is far from a predictable 60th vote to stave off a GOP filibuster. Lincoln, in fact, noted the similarities between the two of them on April 28, the day Specter made his switch.
Lincoln's presence in the chamber at a time when Obama tries to execute the biggest about-face in government since the Reagan revolution of the early 1980s is history repeating itself. Democratic predecessor Dale Bumpers held the seat when Reagan took office. Bumpers tried hard but unsuccessfully to stop the “trickle-down” economic policies of the Republican icon. Hattie Caraway of Arkansas held the same seat when Franklin Roosevelt, under the guise of the New Deal, executed the other 180-degree turn the government has seen in the past century. Caraway was the first-ever elected female senator in U.S. history and was the only woman besides Lincoln that Arkansas has sent to the chamber.
As Obama proceeds, there is no doubt that Lincoln has become something close to anathema to liberal factions in her own party, many of whom openly question the compatibility of her Senate voting record with Obama's legislative goals. Some on the left have gone so far as to plead for another Democrat from Arkansas to rise up and oppose her in next year's primary. Lincoln's only announced opponent so far, though, is Republican state Sen. Kim Hendren, 71, of Northwest Arkansas. Other Republicans are considering the race, including businessman Curtis Coleman and state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway. For now, though, most seasoned political analysts foresee little trouble in her winning a third six-year term.
But as recent dramas involving her positions on estate taxes and card-check legislation and anti-foreclosure measures illustrate, Lincoln continues to drive the left-of-center crowd crazy, even though her lifetime voting score with Americans for Democratic Action, the leading liberal lobbying group, is 85 percent, compared to 76 percent for Bumpers, who held the seat from January 1975 to January 1999, and 55 percent for J. William Fulbright, who held the seat for nearly three decades before Bumpers.
It is a situation much like the 2008 election, when fellow Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor won re-election despite being strongly denounced by many liberals.
For Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Lincoln is both a “pain” and a “lodestar,” said political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. But there is no doubting that she and the other Democratic centrists “are very influential,” he said. She's a pain in that she can keep the party, at times, from showing the kind of unity Reid wants. But she is also an important navigational instrument for the majority leader from Nevada, because he knows, Ornstein said, that Republicans are not likely to accept anything that troubles Lincoln and her group, which now numbers anywhere from six to 12 members, depending on the issue.
Instead of centrist, Lincoln calls her political philosophy simply being “practical.” In her Capitol Hill office, she explained: “I'm up here trying to get along with everybody, not just my side or the other side but everybody.” And she added, “I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.”
Lincoln also said she expects her presidential support scores — a reading of the percentage of votes where she sides with the president — to be higher under Obama than they were under George W. Bush.
“When he [Obama] is right I don't mind at all being aligned with him. If he's wrong I'm going to disagree with him … and I haven't been bashful about that. I don't mind challenging him,” she said.
Overall, Lincoln added: “I think he's a very pragmatic person, and I consider myself pragmatic. I think he is anxious and wants to bring about results.”
But some on the left ridicule her thinking as too simplistic. And they wonder just who in her home state she is representing when she calls for further reductions in estate taxes, a reduction of primary benefit to a tiny handful of the wealthiest Americans, or says she can't support pro-union legislation and sides with banks on legislation making bankruptcy a harder process for strapped consumers and home owners.
Environmental groups have never been overjoyed with her record, either.
“Is she a Democrat representing her constituents or is she a Democrat representing Wal-Mart?” Tim Fernholz, a commentator at the liberal American Prospect, asked in a telephone interview.
Wal-Mart Stores and others in the business community bitterly oppose the card-check bill that would make formation of unions easier at work sites. Lincoln said she couldn't support the legislation in “its current form.”
Yet Lincoln pleased organized labor in 2007 by supporting an unsuccessful cloture motion that would have allowed the bill, formally known as the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, to come to a vote. She even co-sponsored a version of the bill in 2005. If enacted, the legislation would change federal labor relations laws so that workers could be unionized whenever the majority of workers at a site sign authorization cards. It eliminates the need for formal elections in which, organized labor contends, management can more easily intimidate workers into not forming a union.
Lincoln's critics also suspect her of bending her ear to her wealthier campaign supporters when she made a controversial run at cutting estate taxes earlier this spring.
A tabulation done for Arkansas Times by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign research organization, shows her largest single source of political contributors continue to be family members, employees and political action committees related to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. From 2003-2008, they gave her $55,800. Tyson Foods came in at No. 5 with $43,250 and the Stephens Group at No. 13 with $34,200. Though large sums, they are a relatively small percentage of the millions necessary to run a Senate campaign. Still, they represent serious contributions from families with much to gain from estate tax reductions.
Lincoln has vigorously denied she was trying to help the ultra-wealthy, saying her main interests were protecting family farms and small businesses from being unfairly taxed away after the owners had died. But current estate tax exemptions already leave $7 million of a couple's net assets exempt from taxes and various laws provide special advantages for additional amounts owned by farms and “small” businesses.
In her Capitol Hill office, she said she is “absolutely” not afraid to say “no” to Wal-Mart on certain issues, “Sometimes you have to choose sides and I've done that with every constituency I've had,” she said.
Her staff noted she refused to side with the retail giant on a 2008 bill that moved regulation of imported catfish from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Agriculture.
That estate tax reduction was pushed by a senator from one of the poorest states in the country left many puzzled.
“For a poor state and a state with a fairly strong populist position it doesn't really fit,” said Hal Bass, political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University. “Objectively it doesn't make much sense; it really doesn't.”
Lincoln's involvement with the issue predates the 111th Congress. In 2006, she called for repeal of the estate tax. It was a move in which Lincoln “disgraced herself,” according to the Washington Monthly, another left-leaning publication.
The truth of all such criticism, though, is that it's one issue that isn't likely to hurt her much in 2010.
Conservatives have taken note of her estate tax proposals with approval. Lincoln, like most Democrats, normally gets poor scores on tax and budget votes from the National Taxpayers Union, but Pete Sepp, spokesman for the group, said the Lincoln-Kyl proposal would be a weighty feather in her cap when his organization evaluates performance of lawmakers in the 2009 session.
Sepp and conservative commentators at the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning think tank, also said they will be interested to see how Lincoln's moderate image holds up as more and more of the president's program moves forward.
To the criticism Lincoln gets for allegedly abandoning the little people — including most recently a proposal to allow bankruptcy judges to reduce the interest rates on some mortgages to make them more affordable — the senator points proudly to her record of support for new and expanded programs that help the poor, elderly and disabled, saying they far exceed her involvement with the items such as estate tax relief.
In response to questions from the Arkansas Times, Lincoln's staff produced a six-page record that detailed her advocacy over the past decade of 37 such proposals. The list included such things as: increased funding for and tweaking of programs such as Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance for the poor, and the Older Americans Act, which provides funding for a range of elderly programs, such as Meals on Wheels. It also listed more support for federal college grants, improved funding for rural hospitals, formation of a Senate Hunger Caucus, and boosting funds for Title I [economically disadvantage] schools.
Perhaps the highlight of her legislative record so far has been her successful 2003 battle to improve child tax credits, which brought her an avalanche of favorable national publicity, including from pundits such as David Broder.
But Lincoln's history of campaign contributions, combined with her history of frequently distancing herself from the majority of Senate Democrats, makes those on both sides of the aisle wonder how she will vote on coming issues such as climate protection and health care.
Utilities and health care groups of all types have also been among her major contributors. So far, the Arkansas senator has refused to take sides on the controversial cap-and-trade idea related to carbon emissions. Her campaign financing shows generosity on the part of several coal-burning electric utilities. Entergy Corp. ranked number three on the Center for Responsive Politics' list of her largest single donors at $48,982. And records at the Federal Election Commission over the past decade show many donations to her by utilities with legendary political influence, such as American Electric Power, which hopes to build a coal-fired power plant in Arkansas, as well as the Edison Electric Institute, an industry lobbying organization
For most of her Senate tenure, Lincoln has gotten poor to mediocre scores from environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, their umbrella organization.
And while she is enthusiastic about health care reform in general, there is little doubt that the road to such legislation will be marked with many controversial votes over subparts and related issues. Already there is much speculation about her joining a caucus that will oppose Obama's vision of a government-run health plan to compete with the private sector.
One noted moderate, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, said in a telephone interview: “Every politician has to be first and foremost in tune with his or her constituents. If the constituency is more conservative than the president, they have to take that into account.” Nobody has forgotten, least of all Republicans, how badly Obama lost Arkansas in 2008.
But Hamilton added he would avoid any “sweeping generalizations” about how lawmakers will respond to Obama's agenda. “The so-called moderate Democrats will support him in some instances and oppose him in others. It's going to be a very mixed bag I believe,” he added.
Her critics also come down on Lincoln and other centrists for talking one way but acting another. While Lincoln has frequently talked about the need for changing attitudes on Wall Street, this year she accepted donations from the Managed Funds Association, the lobbying arm of the hedge fund industry, her latest campaign finance filing shows. And in late 2008, near the height of the Wall Street turmoil, she was taking contributions from Goldman Sachs.
Controversy of any sort seems an unnatural fit for Lincoln when she is interviewed in person. She displays none of the partisan crankiness common on Capitol Hill. Instead, she converses with the charm of a Southern sorority girl, which she was at UA-Fayetteville before transferring to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia. She always comes out from behind her desk to sit with her guests, and her tone is marked by frequent self-deprecating chuckles.
But her staff laughs at the notion that she never gets mad. “I've heard her say on various occasions that she tries to follow her mother's advice to never be rude or dangerous,” one Lincoln staffer said.
A decade ago, she was the youngest member of the Senate at 38 and after Pryor defeated incumbent Republican Tim Hutchinson in 2002, became the youngest “senior senator” of any state. The lines on her forehead are a little more pronounced than they were a decade ago, but The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, has had her on recent lists of Capitol Hill “babes.”
For sure, she had big shoes to fill when she replaced Bumpers, who was known for his Senate floor speeches and aggressiveness for Arkansas on the Appropriations Committee.
Lincoln, whose speeches are much folksier and make frequent reference to families and children, can give a powerful address herself when she sets her mind to it. Her speech defending farm subsidies in late 2007 was regarded as influential in passing the latest farm bill and can still be found on YouTube.com.
But growing up, she said she didn't have the slightest idea politics and government would be her calling.
Armed with a degree in biology, she at first wanted to go into nursing. But immediately after college she caught “Potomac fever,” first by working for former First District Rep. Bill Alexander, who she would unseat in 1992 in the wake of the House check-writing scandal.
She grew up in Helena in Phillips County, one of the poorest places in the nation (median income under $20,000). Her father, the late Jordan Lambert, was a row-crop farmer outside of town, and she still speaks fondly of her days walking rice levees on the farm and growing up inside Helena, where her family lived and she earned $5 allowance, in a good week, doing household chores like feeding the dog and helping with dinner. And her dad read her the comics every morning at breakfast. “I loved it,” Lincoln said.
Lincoln retains a special affection for rural communities today, and as a longtime member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is either head of or a member of virtually ever Senate caucus on rural issues. She is also considered Reid's deputy when it comes to rural issues.
She has already strongly signaled to Obama that she will oppose his attempt to cut subsidies for farmers. Critics who look at gross revenues of farms, especially row-crop farms, never look at the high input costs required, she says.
Lincoln said she and her husband, an ob-gyn doctor with a sub-specialty in reproductive endocrinology, strive to make things seem as normal as possible for the twins around their “digs.” She added, “We're a pretty typical working family.”
When Lincoln gets a chance, she goes to a Washington-area Costco store so she can fill her freezer and do extensive meal planning. She tells stories of running into fellow senators there like Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois there.
Occasionally while she is making dinner, one of her kids will yell, “Mom, you're on television.” But for the most part her twins don't concern themselves with politics and that's the way she wants to keep it. “We're still into water-gun fights and that kind of stuff,” she said, adding that the boys are also filled with team sports, music lessons, flashlight tag games and lots of reading. Either Reece or Bennett will sometimes bring a book to read at the breakfast table during the school week and she has to insist they don't have time for that. “We would have to get up 30 minutes earlier,” she laughs in a tone that suggests she is not about to.
Unlike Pryor, who moved his family back to Little Rock after a few years in Washington and became a commuting senator, Lincoln wants to live in the Washington area with her kids near her so she won't miss their growing up.
“They are only going to be in that ‘Guys and Doll' play in the seventh grade one time. I'm not going to miss it. I think people understand that,” she said.
Lincoln was one of the original Blue Dog Democrats in her days in the House from January 1993 to January 1997, and has joined about every congressional caucus of moderates and centrists since. She has even joked to AETN's Steve Barnes that she's still the only Blue Dog “with a litter.” And this year, she and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., announced the formation of yet another group of Senate centrists who pledged to work together in considering in Obama's proposals.
While in the House, she also compiled a fairly conservative record for a Democrat, as scored by the ADA. She supported key parts of the Contract with America, including a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
She has since come to see the term “Blue Dog” equated with Republicanism and her political moderation vilified by liberals who support Obama. Laura Olson, a veteran Congress watcher at Clemson University in South Carolina, said in an e-mail that Republicans will continue to stir red state voters with concerns about what Obama and the Democratic Congress are doing to the national debt.
“If this strategy works, moderate Democrats in red states like Arkansas will be forced to temper their support for Obama if they wish to win re-election, which is precisely the point of the strategy,” the Clemson political scientist added.
But Bass, the Ouachita Baptist professor, doubts she has anything to worry about with her Arkansas constituents. And since the Democrats have a larger majority than before, her straying from the party line on selected issues will probably be tolerated. Summed up Bass, “I don't see her as particularly vulnerable.”
Lincoln's campaign manager Steve Patterson dismisses signs of potential vulnerability in a recent poll and by her failure to beat right-winger Jim Holt more soundly in 2004 or in Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's defeat of Obama in Arkansas by 20 percentage points in 2008. Some early polls have attracted attention only because there is a dearth of real news about Senate races this early in the election cycle, Patterson said.
About her showing in 2004, Patterson said you have to remember that was a presidential election year and many ultra conservatives were motivated to vote by issues such as gay marriage. “She outperformed [Sen.] John Kerry [the Democratic presidential nominee] by 13 to 27 percent in every county in Arkansas,” the campaign manager said.
Lincoln herself says she is nowhere close to the burnout that causes some members to leave Capitol Hill voluntarily. She wants the job, she said, “As long as I feel I have good energy and good ideas and an anxiousness to bring results to the people of Arkansas. That's what's important.”
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