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Hip deep in health care 

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills was long in the thick of things, including the creation of Medicare 40 years ago, and Sen. J. William Fulbright's influence in foreign affairs, especially during the Vietnam war, made him an international symbol of high-toned dissent. But that was way back, and even then it was rare for twomembers of the Arkansas congressional delegation to be so prominently engaged with the same great issue at the same time, and to be so widely and earnestly censured, as were Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Mike Ross in the fight over health-care reform. For all they did, and didn't, they're the Arkansas Times' of the Year for 2009.

Ross, a leader of a conservative Democratic faction known as the Blue Dogs, negotiated with President Obama and congressional leaders, but wound up voting against the House version of health-care reform, calling it “fiscally irresponsible.” The bill passed anyway.

Lincoln was a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which wrote the original version of the Senate's bill. That bill was revised many times but it resembled the original when Lincoln cast one of the 60 votes needed for Senate approval. She said the bill was imperfect, but “a vast improvement over the status quo.” She was among a small group of senators who worked out an alternative to the divisive “public-option” provision.

The two versions of reform must be reconciled by the two houses before final passage. Very likely, a government-run health insurance program ? authorized in the House version but absent from the Senate version ? will be absent from the final bill.  Both Ross and Lincoln opposed the “public option,” as did insurance companies and right-wing Republicans. Liberal Democrats were loudly dissatisfied with the two Arkansans.

Ross has generally pleased conservatives, and there are many of them in the Fourth Congressional District. Lincoln seems to have pleased hardly anybody on health care, and has been maligned left and right by columnists, bloggers and authors of letters to the editor:

“Blanche Lincoln does not deserve to be re-elected. Again and again she has proved that she cares more about the interests of corporations than she does about the well-being of Arkansans. She fought for a giveaway to drug companies, but worked for the insurance companies to kill the public option. She's happy to advocate for eliminating the estate tax for the wealthiest Americans, but doesn't believe working Arkansans should have the right to unionize for better pay and benefits. …  ”

“Thanks to Sen. Blanche Lincoln for helping to ruin Christmas and endanger the nation if this horrific health care monstrosity isn't stopped. Maybe she's happy that she supported the sick leftist, progressive radicalism of Barack Obama and his Chicago thugs, but her constituents are not. Of course, that means nothing to her now, since she and the rest of her arrogant Democratic goons have clearly demonstrated that they could care less what the American people think, but it may make a big difference come election time.”

Lincoln is regularly threatened with political ruin for being too liberal. And for being too conservative. One is reminded of the Arkansas Supreme Court throwing an initiative off the ballot for being excessively long, and unacceptably short.

Both Ross and Lincoln are up for re-election. Ross is said to be safe, Lincoln otherwise. The national Republican Party plans a major campaign against her, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state's largest newspaper, has already opened fire. The notorious Karl Rove recently gave money to an Arkansas politician seeking the Republican Senate nomination.

Lincolnians have not been asleep. In the last week of December, after the Senate health-care vote had finally been taken, the Lincoln camp was sending out e-mail solicitations for funds almost daily, signed by Lincoln's campaign manager, Steve Patterson, or her husband, Steve Lincoln, or by former President Bill Clinton or by Lincoln herself:

“We have a really important FEC [Federal Elections Commission] deadline coming up on December 31st, and I could really use your help,” she wrote. “As I am sure you have heard, the national Republicans have put a target on my back and I expect one of the toughest campaigns of my life. They will be looking at my 2009 fundraising totals to determine whether I have the support I need to win. A contribution from you today ? even $5 or more ? can make all the difference.”

Little Rock is the government media center of Arkansas. Pundits and politicians in Pulaski County sometimes overlook and underrate politicians from the outlands of East Arkansas. Before the passage of federal civil rights laws empowered the area's large black population, rich planters chose the area's public officials, including the congressman. Those officials were uniformly conservative ? even segregationist, as long as it was legal.

One year as the old order was crumbling, a young and largely unknown lawyer from Osceola named Bill Alexander was elected to represent the First Congressional District. He commenced voting the national Democratic Party line; his predecessors had bragged of their independence from it. Central Arkansas experts were nonplussed by the anomalous newcomer. “He just sprang up like a dahlia,” one said. A new kind of politics in East Arkansas had indeed flowered. The voices of black and low-income voters were beginning to be heard.

Still, Alexander was so far out of step with the power structure of East Arkansas, that people wondered how he could hold on to the congressional seat. Finally, he lost it, but not to an old-style East Arkansas politician. It was another dahlia that did the trick.

Blanche Lambert grew up in Helena, a seventh-generation Arkansan, as she likes to say, and a member of a prominent farming family. Unlike a Bill Clinton or a David Pryor, she wasn't infected by politics while still in grade school. When she graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., “I thought I wanted to go into nursing,” but she decided to go to Washington and work for a year before going back to school. She found a job with the congressman from her district. That was Bill Alexander. It proved to be a bad hire, from Alexander's standpoint.

While working in Washington, “I got enamored with my country and my government,” Lincoln says. “I thought it was amazing how the system worked. I thought about being a lobbyist for my state, and I asked ‘How do you do that?' ”  A friend suggested she run for Congress instead. “So I did” ? against her former boss. Was that race especially bitter because of the former relationship? “I tried for it not to be,” she says.

She didn't use Hattie Caraway as a role model, although she frequently refers to the former senator these days. Caraway, also from East Arkansas (Jonesboro), was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, earning that distinction in 1932.

“I didn't know about Hattie Caraway growing up,” Lincoln says. “It's amazing that I didn't, but I didn't. “

The young Lambert attended the Episcopal Church and had a nice personality, according to a long-time and politically knowledgeable acquaintance. He never expected her to run for Congress, though ? many Episcopalians with nice personalities don't ? and he told his wife, a Lincoln supporter, “Blanche doesn't have a chance.” It was her first political race.

But Alexander was a little flighty, and even some of his supporters may have been put off by his unapologetic loyalty to the national Democratic Party. And, “Blanche got out and worked real hard, and she had some really outstanding volunteers, mostly women who weren't usually involved in political races.” Refined, upper-class women can do a lot when they work up a glow. Arkansas has seen that more than once. Family connections helped too. “Her mom and dad had a lot of friends. Her uncle drove her around the congressional district.”

She was elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1994, by which time she was using her married name, Lincoln. Her husband is a doctor. She didn't seek re-election in 1996. She was pregnant at the time, and subsequently gave birth to twin sons.

By now, she'd convinced the skeptics of her electability. Nobody was surprised that she ran for the Senate when Dale Bumpers retired in 1998. She won fairly easily, and at 38 she was the youngest woman ever elected senator. But she didn't convert Little Rock liberals, some of whom believed she was too light for a Senate seat, and certainly too light to succeed the sainted Bumpers. She beat a couple of Little Rock lawyers who were more highly regarded by the liberal and legal communities, of which there's considerable overlap. In those circles, and still to some extent, Lincoln was regarded as a plantation princess, certain to uphold the views of the rich, white, conservative establishment.

Which she's done a good bit of. Elected to a second term in 2004, without serious opposition, she's generally popular with conservative groups like the Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce. She opposes the estate tax, paid only by the super-rich, and  organized labor's bill that would make it easier to unionize workers. Recently named chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the first woman to hold that office, she'll be turning to the Farm Bureau again for support and direction.

But overall, she's justified in calling herself a moderate. She's supported a good many social welfare programs ? such as better education, nutrition and health care for low-income families ? and from time to time she calls special attention to her efforts to benefit women and children. She's usually a progressive vote on abortion. A member of the liberal do-good lobby, one who doesn't endorse candidates openly, says “Given that she's in a tough election fight in a conservative state, I think she's been pretty good.” Consumer advocacy groups like the AARP have run ads praising her.

Americans for Democratic Action, as solid a liberal group as there is, rates the members of Congress every year on how often they vote on the liberal side. Lincoln always scores fairly high. A recent ADA survey showed her and Rep. Marion Berry of the First District with the most liberal voting records in the six-member Arkansas congressional delegation. Janine Parry, an assistant professor of political science and director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, points out that in 5 of the 6 full years that Lincoln and Mark Pryor have served together in the Senate, Lincoln has had the higher ADA score. But in Arkansas liberal circles, Lincoln is reviled far more than Pryor. The voting records of Pryor and Lincoln, both centrist Democrats, are much alike, but Pryor has a higher approval rating among both Democrats (66 per cent to 61 percent) and among Republicans (43 percent to 34 percent). The liberals like him better and the conservatives hate her worse.

“I think there's a gender element here,” Parry says, “but it's hard to prove.” She says that 29 percent of women disapprove of Lincoln, but 40 percent of men do. “The theme I see most often coming from her office ? that she's moderate, thoughtful, independent ? doesn't seem to be catching hold among men. Instead it comes across as wishy-washy, confused or unprincipled. You could argue that being in the middle [on health care] is a pretty sophisticated position. Look at where Arkansans are. You could interpret her actions as being a good steward of what Arkansans want.”

That's Ross' position, Parry said, and he stands up to national Democratic leaders in defending it, just as Lincoln has done. “But he seems to be seen as an independent leader, and she seems to be seen as a scaredy-cat, and to me they seem to be taking the same actions.” She observes that people refer to Lincoln by her first name. “They don't call Ross ‘Mike'. ”

Hal Bass, a professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, was asked about genderism. “I wouldn't completely discount it, but I wouldn't give undue attention to it either.” That Lincoln is referred to by her first name may be an advantage, he said. “I think there is a tradition in Arkansas that we identify and appreciate candidates by their first name.” Not being on a first-name basis with the electorate is a problem for all the announced Republican challengers to Lincoln, Bass said, and one reason that he's not greatly impressed by polls purporting to show Lincoln in deep trouble. (Another reason is that he's never impressed by polls taken this early in a campaign.)

“I think we're at a time when there's a lot of general dissatisfaction with the governing process, and she's been a very visible, pivotal figure in the health care debate,” Bass said.  “Right now, the polls are registering dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs as much as dissatisfaction with Blanche.” As for Lincoln being criticized more than Pryor, Bass says that she's in a more exposed position ? up for re-election ? and she doesn't have the reserve of good will to fall back on that Pryor has. Pryor's father, David, is a former senator and governor. There are probably people who think they're still voting for him.

“I don't see any Republican or Democrat on the horizon who has the connection with Arkansas voters to prevail over Lincoln in 2010,” Bass said. “Right now, it's Blanche or an ideal challenger. But there is no ideal challenger. When she gets against a real candidate, she'll look a lot better.”

That's an opinion shared by state Sen. John Paul Capps of Searcy, who ran his first race 50 years ago. Being chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee is hugely important in a state like Arkansas, Capps said, and Lincoln should talk about it a lot. (She will.) “Most of the people who say she's in trouble are people who don't like her. I think she's not nearly as vulnerable as they think. Especially when she starts spending millions, and she'll have it to spend.”

But another well seasoned Arkansas politician says, “If I knew Bill Halter, I'd tell him this is his opportunity.” (The lieutenant governor has been mentioned as a possible Democratic opponent for Lincoln.) The politician remembered when Bill McCuen beat First District congressman Beryl Anthony in the Democratic primary of  1992, and then lost in the general election to Jay Dickey. Anthony's loss in the primary surprised many, “But that was Beryl's time to go. That could happen here to Blanche.”

Health-care reform has roused the electorate more than any other issue in U.S. Rep. Mike Ross's political career.

“I had an Arkadelphia town hall meeting that drew 500 people. A year earlier, it might have drawn 25. I've never seen people so worried, so scared, so angry as they are now.”

Ross hears their worry, their fear, their anger about as keenly as anyone. “My statements and my votes reflect the overwhelming majority of my constituents,” he says, and if someone suggests that he should just do what's right on health reform or global warming, regardless of public opinion in the Fourth Congressional District, he replies, “My job is to go to Washington and represent the people of my district.”

Evidently the people appreciate it. Like all congressmen, he's up for re-election this year, but political observers don't expect a serious opponent. A challenge in the Fourth District would be difficult even if Ross weren't so popular. The 29-county district is huge, and likely to grow larger, because of population shifts within the state. Still thought of as “South Arkansas,” the Fourth District now extends up the western boundary of the state to within 50 miles of Fort Smith. Booneville is in the Fourth District, and so is Mount Magazine. But there's no major media center in the district. To reach the voters, a candidate has to buy expensive TV time in Little Rock and out-of-state.

Fortunately, giving the people what they want usually doesn't require Ross to give up what he wants. He is, he says, “the go-to guy” for the National Rifle Association in the House. (Affable, he's not as scary as you'd expect a go-to guy for the NRA to be.) “I'm an avid outdoorsman, a hunter, a fisherman. I'm opposed to gun control. That's who I am, that's how I was raised.” A goodly number of other congressional Democrats were raised the same way, he says. Though national Democrats once advocated gun control, “There are 65 pro-gun Democrats in Congress today. You haven't seen any anti-gun legislation being pushed by the leadership in this Congress, and I expect you will not.”

He voted against a cap-and-trade bill favored by environmentalists and opposed by industry. A Lion Oil Company executive testified the bill would eliminate 1,200 jobs in El Dorado, making Ross' vote easy for him. “I think global warming is real, but we have to be careful we don't export our jobs to foreign countries.” He has his own energy bill, calling for more drilling in the U.S. and heavy investment in alternative-energy sources such as biomass. The bill has not attracted wide support.

Unlike Lincoln, who presents herself as a moderate beset by extremists from both sides, Ross can openly call himself a conservative, albeit one who often supports progressive positions. He'll talk about standing up to Nancy Pelosi on behalf of his constituents, but he'll also admit that he can do so without risk of reprisal from the Democratic leadership.

The leadership understands conservative districts, he said, and the Blue Dogs frequently vote with the leadership to pass progressive legislation ? raising the minimum wage, for example, and expanding health care for children. “Those things wouldn't have been possible without the 52 conservative Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition.” To those in both parties who say he should be a Republican, he responds “I've been a Democrat all my life.” His heroes have always been Democrats. When bad weather grounded Lincoln's airplane the day before the election in 2004, Ross ? who was unopposed ? spoke for her at at El Dorado and Texarkana.

That sort of thing doesn't placate liberal groups such as Boldprogressives.org, which is soliciting contributions online to buy anti-Ross ads in the Fourth District. Boldprogressives calls Ross “a top Blue Dog who Keith Olbermann featured for selling out to his insurance contributors.”

Perhaps Ross understands his constituents so well because he's so often among them. His wife and two children live in the family home at Prescott fulltime. He has a small apartment in Washington, but “After the last vote each week, I'm on a plane back to Arkansas. I wake up in Prescott as many days as I wake up in Washington.”

He grew up in and around Prescott. His parents were public-school educators and taught him the importance of public service, he says. When he was 10 or 11, he heard Gov. Dale Bumpers speak at the opening of a stretch of Interstate 30. It made a big impression. He joined the Young Democrats while attending UALR, and at 19 or 20 attended another speech by Bumpers, who was then a senator. He sent a note telling Bumpers of his own political ambitions. Bumpers replied with a handwritten note of encouragement that now hangs on the wall of Ross' office in Washington.

In 1981 and '82, he was a driver for Bill Clinton, who was seeking to make a political comeback against Gov. Frank White, and succeeded. After college, he and his wife, a pharmacist, owned a pharmacy. He served a term on the Nevada County Quorum Court, and worked for then-Lt. Gov. Winston Bryant for a time. (Bryant would later lose a Senate race to Blanche Lincoln.) When a state Senate seat opened up in 1990, he ran for it, becoming the youngest member of that body at the age of 29. People who knew him then remember him as somewhat immature but generally well-intentioned, and diligent in tending to constituents. No high school graduate, no 50-year matrimonial veteran, went uncongratulated in Ross' district. He was never a leader of the Senate, but he was a member of the Mike Beebe faction, aka “the White Hats,” then at war with the Nick Wilson faction, and his choice of sides won him favorable notice from everyone except the Wilson gang. Term limits caught him after 10 years, and he ran for the U.S. House. To the surprise of some who'd known him in the Senate, he won, defeating the Republican Dickey. At the moment, it appears he can hold the seat as long as he wants.

Some say that he'll one day run for governor or senator. He says, “I have no plan except to ask the people of the Fourth District to re-elect me in 2010.”

At press time, Congress hadn't yet approved a compromise health-care bill, though it was expected to shortly. Lincoln expects that the compromise won't include the public option, and therefore she'll be able to vote for the bill. Other senators feel as she does, she said, and “Both the majority leader of the Senate and the speaker of the House know about the delicate balance in the Senate,” where there are no votes to spare.

Ross, asked if he would support a health-care bill without the government option, was noncommittal. “I'm withholding judgment until we actually have a final bill,” he said. “Then I'll read it and make a decision.” An unscientific poll on the congressman's website found respondents opposed to the Senate bill even without the government option, he said. 

The pressure brought on by the health-care legislation remains intense. At one point, Lincoln's office phones crashed from the volume of calls, and both she and Ross have dealt with unruly town hall meetings. But she finesses the question of whether health care will be the decisive issue in her re-election campaign. “I'm accountable for all the choices I make,” she says. Health care, energy, agriculture, education ? “I work on all of them.”

Commentators continue to say that Lincoln is in grave danger of losing her seat to a Republican, and Lincoln-bashing remains a popular sport. Lately, her home-state critics have been griping that some senators got special deals for their states in return for their health-care votes, but Lincoln and Pryor got nothing for Arkansas.

Lincoln gives a statesman's response: “Arkansans didn't send me to Washington to be a horse trader. I think this [health-care reform] is good policy for Arkansas and for the country. I was disappointed by some of the things that were put in the bill. But you have to continue to fight for the things that are good.”

A few Internet carpers have even criticized Lincoln's conspicuous East Arkansas accent, suggesting that she exaggerates it for political effect back home. “People that have known me all my life know that I talk this way,” she says, and for someone to say otherwise is “comical.” She'd be happy to fight the campaign on that issue. 

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