Arkansas Democrats from Sen. Blanche Lincoln to a county coroner in the Delta are swimming against the tide this year and lots of them are preparing quietly for the new reality. Arkansas will join the rest of the South as a Republican state, not altogether this year but soon.
The next big scholarly pursuit of political scientists will be to assay why the most solidly and consistently Democratic state in the country since 1836 suddenly started to flip in 2010. Arkansas Republicans had made a few gains the past 15 years, but they entered this election year with the sparsest contingent of officeholders in the country. They are apt to win half or more of the state's seats in Congress in November and nearly 40 percent of the state legislature.
The academics won't have to dig deeply. Everyone knows the answer though many will dispute its meaning. Barack Obama is president and he has come to represent the Democratic Party. Republican candidates from the courthouse to the Senate see to that. Every Republican is running against the president and every Democrat is somehow a stooge of Obama. It works.
Wait, you say, don't tell us it is because Obama is black, the first African-American nominee of a major party and the first African-American president.
That is exactly the reason.
But isn't Arkansas famously the moderate Southern state with a long history of electing men of tolerant to liberal persuasion to federal office, including Bill Clinton? When the rest of the solid South turned Republican after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, Arkansas stayed in the bosom of Franklin Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's party.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act he is supposed to have told Bill Moyers, an aide, "I've just handed the South to the Republican Party for 50 years, certainly for the rest of our lives."
Arkansas was inoculated because Orval Faubus was the governor, the Democratic Party was represented in Washington by a couple of segregationists, John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright, and the face of Arkansas Republicanism was Winthrop Rockefeller, the most ardent champion of civil rights among Southern politicians and later the nation's and maybe history's most liberal governor. They were followed by a generation of moderate but unusually charismatic Democratic leaders, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker.
They are gone, replaced by the cautious and workmanlike Mike Beebe at the Capitol and a congressional delegation that is bland and maybe the most fainthearted in Washington.
So the party is Barack Obama, and nowhere in the South is he more unpopular than in Arkansas. It has nothing to do with his policies either.
When he was running in 2008 he was the most conservative of the leading Democratic contenders. The others savaged him for his health-care reform ideas, which were the weakest of the candidates'. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had embraced the old Republican plan, first proposed by Richard Nixon in 1973 and implemented in Massachusetts by the Republican Mitt Romney. The Senate and the House of Representatives wrote that bill in 2009 and Obama accepted it.
One of Obama's weakest showings in the primaries was in Arkansas, where Clinton beat him 70 percent to 26 percent. I was fishing with a retired politician on the Little Red River a few days later and noted that Clinton was surprisingly popular in his little town, winning nearly every vote.
"Oh, nobody much wants Hillary to be president," he said. "They just don't want that black fellow."
Only Arkansas and Louisiana gave Obama fewer votes than they gave John Kerry, the 2008 nominee, and in Louisiana it was close.
Why should he be so unpopular now in Arkansas?
Can they blame Obama for the rotten economy? Arkansas is doing better than nearly every other state and polls show that people still blame George W. Bush for the recession.
The unemployment rate in Arkansas has hovered around 7.5 percent. But it has been much higher in modern times, 10.1 percent under Ronald Reagan and more than 8 percent under George H. W. Bush.
But he has been borrowing billions for a radical stimulus program! Yes, but economists agree that the stimulus stopped the recession a year ago but wasn't enough to kick the economy into high gear. And why did people not hate George W. Bush when he passed a $170 billion stimulus bill in 2008 that decidedly did not work? Bush just sent every American a welfare check, which they used to pay down their credit-card bills without creating a single job. The economy took a real nosedive after that.
Despite the cries that he is a socialist and a radical, Obama is the most centrist Democratic president or nominee since Al Smith. Well, Bill Clinton may tie.
Few Arkansans would accept the implication that they are racists because they dislike the president so intensely. But they will believe anything about Obama, things they would not believe about anyone else: that he is a Muslim, that the Hawaiian birth certificate and the birth announcements in the Hawaiian newspapers in 1961 were part of an elaborate plot to foist the Obama baby upon the country some day, that he is engaged in all sorts of secret activities to undermine the country that are exposed in revelations spread across the Internet every day.
Why do so many people buy such smears? A study during the 2008 campaign by a group of psychologists, reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests the reason. Both blacks and whites, people of different ethnic backgrounds and even people of different age groups have subconscious notions about people who are distinctly different and they are subtly triggered during a political campaign. So a person need not hate or fear the other race to believe any anonymous smear. They are subconsciously conditioned to believe it.
That is the kindest explanation for the way things are.
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