"The hardest thing about any political campaign," Adlai Stevenson said at the end of his last race, "is how to win without proving yourself unworthy of winning."
That dilemma faces every politician, and few confront it perfectly, but the challenge is especially hard for the professional centrist in times, like now, when extremism carries the day.
So with the hardest battles of their 22-year political careers in the offing, Sen. Mark Pryor and former Congressman Mike Ross are turning themselves inside out adjusting to what they imagine are the hard realities of the season.
It is not going so well for Pryor, and it is too early to tell for Ross.
Pryor and Ross define centrism. In remarkably similar careers since 1990, when both were elected to the legislature, they have toiled to be seen as hewing to the middle and even to the Republican right on occasion but still, like good Democrats, generally voting for working folks and the middle class on economic and social matters. They arrive at the straddle, more often than not, by voting or siding vocally with the Republicans on agitable issues like guns, abortion and gays.
Now, Ross is running for governor and must win a Democratic primary next May to face a right-wing Republican in the general election, probably the GOP's three-time retread, Asa Hutchinson. With little to worry about in a Democratic primary, Pryor sees himself in a battle with a far-right Republican, probably Tom Cotton, the freshman congressman who is Americans for Prosperity's cat's paw for Arkansas.
The danger for the centrist is for voters to see him or her as a politician without a core, who will toss principle aside for the support of an interest group. It happened to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who tried to make herself indistinguishable from her Republican foe. She voted for the Affordable Care Act, which she helped write, but refused to defend it to Arkansas voters and then cast a meaningless vote against it on reconciliation to make people believe she really opposed it. She was rewarded with fewer than 37 percent of the votes.
The role of centrist actually looked natural for Mark Pryor, who never seemed to be on a mission. He exhibited no burning desire to fix social and economic injustice as a state legislator, attorney general or U.S. senator and instead was a guy who wanted first to get along and work things out peaceably. He foiled his party again and again by joining a handful of soft Republicans and conservative Democrats looking for a third way.
Then came the mass murder of children and teachers at Sandy Hook, which seemed briefly to be a national catharsis. People were ready to take small steps to stop the carnage in schools, streets and workplaces wrought by new generations of high-capacity weapons.
But back in Arkansas, the legislature was whooping through bill after bill on guns, a dozen in all, and not one to regulate them as the Second Amendment mandates but to make them more prevalent. So Pryor announced that he was unequivocally opposed to banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. When the legislation in the Senate came down chiefly to universal mandatory background checks on people buying guns, Pryor voted with three Democrats and most Republicans to prevent even a vote on it.
All hell broke loose. Criticism rained upon him, from the president by inference, and from Democratic leaders, organizations that had sprung up to advocate new gun rules and constituents in Arkansas. His Senate colleague, John Boozman, had voted the same way and all four Republican congressmen from Arkansas opposed gun legislation, too, but they escaped direct criticism. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on ads making an example of Pryor. No one expected a different vote from the Republicans.
Was Pryor voting the wishes of most Arkansans, in spite of the lopsided national polls? Who knows? But it hardly matters. The overwhelming sense is that he did it not out of conviction but to oblige the National Rifle Association and its cadre of true believers in Arkansas, who probably were not going to vote for him anyway. It is hard to see how he helped himself.
Huffington Post did not help by reporting that as a state representative he had sponsored bills that tried to keep weapons out of the hands of children and imposed criminal sanctions. When his father ran for U.S. senator in 1972 he withstood spurious attacks that he had been a foe of guns as a state representative.
Ross has a different problem, proving to the progressive constituency in the Democratic primary next spring that he is a real Democrat on women's and social issues, in spite of his voting record in Congress. He reassures private conclaves of Democrats that he would veto the bills foisted on him by the reactionary legislators just like Governor Beebe sometimes does. Yes, he voted against the Medicare prescription drug program because it was a Republican give-away to the insurance and drug companies and against Obamacare because voters in his district were strongly opposed (it was associated with that awful colored man) and he couldn't persuade them that it was good for them.
Ross led the congressional gun caucus but switched after the Sandy Hook massacre and said it was time to ban assault weapons and high-capacity clips. What will he say now that he is a politician again and his opponent, if he wins the Democratic nomination, will be a bigger darling of the NRA?
How do you win without proving yourself unworthy?
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