A counter-intuitive strategy for Blanche Lincoln

A COUNTER-INTUITIVE STRATEGY FOR BLANCHE LINCOLN…. Brian Beutler highlights the six members of the Senate Democratic caucus whose votes will be the most difficult to get on health care reform. Near the top of the list is the senior senator from the state of Arkansas.

As a rule, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) may not be as ideological as Nelson is. But she’s got a problem on her hands right now that Nelson doesn’t. She’s an unpopular senator in a conservative state and she’s up for re-election next year. Unlike Nelson … securing Lincoln’s procedural vote is a nuts-and-bolts political problem. How do you get her into a position where she (and the Democratic party) feels her seat isn’t particularly imperiled by votes for health care reform. Last week, she met with both Reid and President Obama. Those conversations will surely continue.

Reform advocates will no doubt deliver the obvious message to Lincoln: just vote for cloture, and then do what you think is best. Well aware of this, the Republican National Committee is already making the obvious threat: if you vote for cloture and then vote against the bill, we’ll turn you into John Kerry (“voted for it before voted against it”).

So, what’s Lincoln to do? The polls look discouraging for her, and Arkansas has moved sharply to the right in recent years. This is not a situation in which a senator can take a tough vote with assurances from the White House that the president and vice president will come campaign for her next year.

Matt Yglesias raises a good point: “A lot of members of congress spent 1993 and ’94 spiking the Clinton legislative agenda and then went down to defeat in November 1994 anyway. Wouldn’t it make more sense to turn the 111th Congress into a substantive success, hope you can persuade the voters that these are good ideas, and if you fail at least manage to have gone down fighting accomplishing something important?”

If I were a campaign strategist for Blanche Lincoln, I’d go a little further — I’d encourage her to become the biggest champion of bold, progressive health care reform in the Senate. I’d urge Lincoln to show some major leadership, get out way in front, and position herself as a Kennedy-like guardian of those suffering under the status quo.

Look, Lincoln isn’t going to out-conservative the Republican candidates in Arkansas. No matter how she votes on reform, the entire Attack Machine is going after her as some kind of radical leftist. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense, and it certainly doesn’t matter if she votes with Republicans on the big issues of the day for the next year.

So why not go big? Why not announce that too many Arkansas families are being screwed right now by a dysfunctional health care system and Blanche Lincoln has decided to do something about it? Why not run ads saying, “I don’t care what the insurance companies and their candidates say: I’m fighting for the families who can’t afford their premiums, the workers who can’t get coverage, the Arkansans with pre-existing conditions, the small businesses that can’t afford insurance for the employees….”?

In other words, show some confidence. Voters can recognize fear, so stop being defensive. Arkansas has a high percentage of low-income families, struggling to get by, who are terrified of their health care situation. They’re not going to vote Democratic on cultural and/or social issues, but they’re open to the Democratic message on economic policy — looking out for working families’ interests. A candidate who positions herself as a populist people’s champion has a better shot than an apologetic Democrat who hopes Republicans won’t mind her party affiliation.

When Republicans accuse her of supporting an overhaul of a broken system, Lincoln might want to try saying, “You’re damn right I do. Why don’t you?”