Friday, June 11, 2010

I've Seen That Movie, Too

On June 9, 1982, I covered Bill Clinton's press conference
the day after his runoff victory in the gubernatorial race.

That was the name of a somewhat obscure song on Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album nearly 40 years ago.

And, if you don't recognize it, that's understandable. There were several songs on that double album that got a lot more airplay, both at the time and in the years since. In fact, to be honest, I'm not sure I ever heard "I've Seen That Movie, Too" played on the radio. It's something of a favorite among John's fans, not so much for the rest of the mainstream audience.

I wouldn't call myself an Elton John fan — I like some of his albums, don't care for others. But that song has been on my mind lately as I have watched the parade of political primaries in the spring and early summer.

I've seen this movie before, I keep telling myself. And I really think I know how it will end. Of course, I could be wrong. That's the way it is sometimes with remakes — the ending of the remake differs from the ending of the original.

But this plot is so familiar. I just can't imagine a radically different conclusion.

At some point — I can't pinpoint precisely when — 2010 became known as the "anti–incumbent" year. I never really bought that — last month, for example, I speculated that centrists, not necessarily incumbents, were threatened in our polarized political atmosphere.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow apparently has reached the conclusion that the "anti–incumbency" furor is fiction. "[A]ctually all the incumbents are winning," she said Wednesday night.

Now, before I go any farther, let me say that I like Maddow — as a person. Sometimes I agree with what she says. Sometimes I don't.

I don't believe this particular conclusion is correct or incorrect — yet. I believe it is premature. For the most part, the parties have been been standing by their men — or, in the case of Arkansas' Democrats, their women. The real test of the incumbents will be this fall, when all of a state's voters can pass their judgment.

I do think Maddow is right when she suggests that, many times, when the pundits pronounce something, it becomes a self–fulfilling prophecy through sheer repetition — not unlike the "Big Lie" of which Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf."

This particular fiction, Maddow insists, was decided on by the "Beltway media" — everyone's favorite whipping boy — who "decided that this was going to be anti–incumbency year. The anti–incumbency theme was going to be the story that they told to explain politics this year."

But a funny thing happened on the way to throwing all the bums out, Maddow said. The voters didn't hold up their end of the bargain.


I beg to differ. All the voters haven't been heard from yet.

Now, earlier this week, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who is widely regarded to be a centrist, survived a hotly contested runoff in my home state of Arkansas against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who was considered the liberal in the race. Perhaps that was the last straw, as far as Maddow was concerned.

I admit, I expected Halter to prevail. My Democratic friends who live in Arkansas have their issues with Lincoln, and my impression is that Democrats in general have moved more to the left in recent years. Consequently, I believed that, in a one–on–one confrontation, the more liberal candidate would win the nomination of today's Arkansas Democrats.

Liberals have always been in the distinct minority in Arkansas. Nearly all of the Democrats who have been successful there in general elections in the last 50 years have been centrists. Before that, I suppose, most Arkansas Democrats would be considered conservative by modern standards.

That doesn't mean that Arkansas' Democrats have always nominated centrists in the last half century — and some of those "centrists" haven't been as centrist as they were advertised to be — but the successful ones always managed to balance some liberal views with some conservative ones.

Well, I haven't seen any exit polls or any comparisons of the vote in the May 18 primary to the vote in Tuesday's runoff. But you can only vote in a runoff if you participated in the original primary, and my guess is that a lot of people took it for granted that about 13% of the voters, who originally supported a conservative businessman who ran third in the primary, would support the challenger, so great is the apparent dissatisfaction with Lincoln in Arkansas and with incumbents in general.

I don't know if either candidate benefited from the third candidate's votes to any extent. But turnout was down about 25% for the runoff, and that could easily include everyone who voted for the third candidate plus another 40,000 or so who voted originally for Lincoln or Halter.

So maybe it was simply a matter of Lincoln doing a better job of getting her voters to return to the polls for the runoff than Halter did.

I learned a long time ago that runoffs in Arkansas are strange and wondrous things, and this one seems to have been no different.

Without getting into too much detail,
  • I questioned the wisdom of allowing Obama to make a radio commercial for Lincoln just before the May 18 primary.

    Obama isn't particularly popular in Arkansas — and, I reasoned, while Obama's support might tip the balance in the race for the Democratic nomination, it might weigh heavily on Lincoln in the fall campaign, when the participants in general are apt to be more conservative.

  • Perhaps Lincoln countered that response by bringing in former President Bill Clinton in the final days. He always has been popular in Arkansas. In more than 40 years, he's the only Democrat (except Jimmy Carter in 1976) to carry Arkansas in a presidential election, and he carried it twice. No Democrat had done that since Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s.

    Arkansans elected Clinton their governor five times, usually by impressive margins. They liked him. They had probably heard every rumor about him that could possibly be spread between his first statewide race (for attorney general) in 1976 and his last gubernatorial campaign in 1990, and they knew some of what was said about him was probably true, but they trusted him all the same.

    The Democrats of today are the philosophical descendants of the Democrats who nominated Clinton in the 1970s and 1980s — minus those who found themselves at odds with some elements of the party's agenda. There seems to be a great deal of regard for Clinton among today's Arkansas Democrats.

  • The problem for Arkansas Democrats is that there aren't as many of them as there used to be. When I was growing up, the candidate who won the Democratic primary for just about anything was, in effect, elected. It isn't that way anymore.

    When I was a child, Arkansas had six representatives in Washington as it does today — its two senators and four representatives in the House. For decades, the two senators were John McClellan and Bill Fulbright, and one of the state's congressmen was Wilbur Mills — three men who seldom had to face serious challengers back home — in either party primaries or general elections. Consequently, they accumulated seniority that brought power and prestige — and pork — to their comparatively small state.

    But things began to shift in the 1970s.

  • To get an idea of that, let's compare this year's Senate race to some high–profile campaigns from the past. Nearly 330,000 people voted in the May 18 primary. Three weeks later, just over 250,000 voted in the runoff. The estimated population of the state in 2008 was a shade under 2.9 million.

    In 1974, Fulbright ran for a sixth term in the Senate. He was challenged by Gov. Dale Bumpers, who built a reputation as a political "giant killer" when he was elected governor, coming from virtual anonymity to defeat former Gov. Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary and then incumbent Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election.

    Bumpers was billed as a "new Southern Democrat," a liberal alternative to Fulbright, who, in addition to promoting his share of perks for his state, had opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act along with most of his Southern colleagues — but also had been one of the leading critics of Vietnam policy, which was not exactly in line with the more hawkish positions taken by many Southern Democrats.

    Nearly 600,000 Arkansans voted in that primary. Based on the 1970 Census, it is fair to assume the state's population in 1974 was around 2 million, about two–thirds of the estimated 2008 population figure. Yet the turnout in a high–profile Democratic Senate primary (long before cable and 24–hour newscasts) was nearly twice what it was in 2010.

  • As exhibit B, consider the Senate Democratic primary of 1978. McClellan died in 1977, about a year before the conclusion of his sixth term, and Gov. David Pryor, in accordance with state law, appointed a caretaker to complete McClellan's term, then ran for the office himself. He was challenged by two congressmen, Jim Guy Tucker (who later became governor) and Ray Thornton (who had achieved a certain amount of national notoriety as a member of the House Judiciary Committee that impeached Richard Nixon in 1974). Their primary campaign drew nearly the same number of voters as the 1974 Bumpers–Fulbright showdown.

    So, in the last 36 years, population has gone up while Democratic primary participation has gone down.

  • Republican primary participation has never been very impressive in Arkansas. Mostly, it seemed to be the hard–core party activists who participated in Republican primaries at all, and such primaries were seldom necessary because candidates were rarely challenged within their party.

    The first truly competitive Republican primary I can recall there was the 1976 presidential race between President Ford and Ronald Reagan. Slightly more than 50,000 people voted in that one.

    Even fewer people voted in the 1980 Republican gubernatorial primary. The 1980 Census showed a population of about 2.2 million people in Arkansas, yet less than 10,000 participated in that primary (by comparison, more than 100,000 people voted in the Republican Senate primary last month). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands voted in the Democratic primary that renominated Clinton for governor by a wide margin over a nondescript, elderly turkey farmer.

    But that year clearly showed me that primary results can be deceiving. The Republican defeated Clinton that November. Maybe he rode Ronald Reagan's coattails to victory. It was, after all, a narrow win — but it was a win, nevertheless.
Like this year is expected to be, 1980 was a bad year for incumbents — but not in their party primaries. A dozen incumbent Democratic senators went down to defeat that year, but only three were rejected by their own party. Nine — including a former presidential nominee — were beaten in November. And both Clinton and President Carter, who had won Democratic primaries handily in late May, lost in Arkansas in November.

I understand Maddow's frustration. And I believe she is right when she says anti–incumbency hasn't played a major role in the primaries.

But I never thought it would.

For most incumbents, Judgment Day will be on November 2. And, as much as things have changed, there are still a few truisms in American politics that are valid.

One of which is ...

The same party seldom enjoys success in three consecutive election cycles.

And the Democrats were the big winners in 2006 and 2008.

History says the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

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