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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Some Lessons of Lincoln’s Win

The high-profile primary elections went pretty much as expected, with the exception of the Lincoln-Halter race in Arkansas, which pundits are calling an upset for Sen. Lincoln, who won by 4 percent. The Arkansas race was certain to be a tough experience for many Democrats, regardless of who won. The way it worked out, progressive Dems got a double dose of the pain.
Not only were progressives hugely disappointed by Lt. Governor Halter’s loss — he was an impressive candidate, who many believed could be a rising star in the Democratic party and who had momentum in the polls. In addition, Lincoln’s victory was tainted by unprecedented union-bashing from a Democratic incumbent and her surrogates, including former President Clinton. Whether Lincoln could have won without it will remain a topic for debate. But, if she loses a close race in November because of weak union support, the folly of the strategy will become clear.
There is no doubt, however, about the wisdom of bringing in the Big Dog, whose popularity is squared in Arkansas. President Clinton, whose 8 years in the white house were characterized by peace and a healthy economy, is still Elvis in his home state. Credit Lincoln with good strategy in leveraging his popularity, especially in today’s troubled economic environment.
Whether or not the union-bashing helped Lincoln, there is some potential for long-term damage here, especially if other Democratic candidates embrace it. In the long run, the Democratic Party needs a strong union movement to build a real progressive majority. Victories won with union-bashing are ultimately divisive and may well end up serving GOP candidates, even in a state with relatively low union power, like Arkansas. Alternatively, if we can only win by disparaging an institution that is the first line of defense for working people in their quest for decent living standards, who the hell are we?
For unions, a couple of lessons of Lincoln’s win come into focus. 1. Be ready for union-bashing. There will likely be more of it in other races. 2. Develop stronger media resources — a national labor movement cable channel with local programming capability is long overdue. Regarding the latter, union GOTV efforts are still an invaluable asset for Dems in many races. But the labor movement urgently needs an energetic nation-wide educational campaign, utilizing more than bumper stickers. Unions must do a better job of educating Americans about all that organized labor has done to create the middle class. They must also adapt their organizing strategy to fit the changing work force so they can grow again. With such a twin-pronged strategy, the labor movement can begin to create a climate in which no smart Democrat would dare to win votes by trashing unions.
I have to agree with WaPo columnist Chris Cillizza’s assessment that, despite all of the jabber about “a strong anti-incumbent wind” blowing around the country, “Lincoln’s victory provides — yet more — evidence that candidates and campaigns matter.” I would also agree with Open Left‘s Chris Bowers that Lincoln’s strong position on Wall St. reform helped her.
But the salient lesson of Lincoln’s primary win for Democrats won’t become clear until November 2nd. She has to do what she can to rebuild bridges to Arkansas progressives, especially unions, which won’t be easy. Lincoln can’t afford to write off any pro-Democratic constituency.
Even more important is her campaign’s ability to attack Republican nominee John Boozman, who leads in polls at this point, and inculcate the meme that he is a rubber-stamp for corporate interests, who wants to repeal Social Security and a liability for Arkansas working people. This should be possible, given Boozman’s track record as a garden-variety Republican who routinely votes with his party (97 percent of the time in the current congress) in support of big business and the wealthy against the interests of the middle class.

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