What do Nancy Pelosi, Charles and David Koch, Barack Obama and Harry Reid have in common besides causing loathing at the mere mention of their names?
Answer: None is on the ballot in Arkansas or anywhere else outside San Francisco, but they dominate political races across the South and the Great Plains. In the case of the shadowy billionaire Koch brothers, that may be only the wishful thinking of Democrats. Despite their deep financial interest in polluting industries in Arkansas and their huge investments in Arkansas Republicans, the Kochs are largely unknown, but Democrats hope to change that by November.
Bête noires — no, let’s use a good Southern word for them, bogeymen — are not a novelty of modern elections, but this is the decade where they have become almost the whole election. In Arkansas they are at least 75 percent of the election.
Since the first midterm of his presidency, Barack Obama has been the bogeyman of every congressional election in the South. Every Democrat who has run for the U. S. Senate or House of Representative and often for state legislative seats has had to run with the specter of Obama beside him or her. Obama’s image or the signature achievement of his presidency, “Obamacare,” appears alongside the Democrat in attack commercials.
You can quarrel over the degree to which the color of his skin and his uncommon name make Obama a hobgoblin in Arkansas and the rest of the South, but when his approval ratings are barely above 30 percent you know it is the case.
Arkansas Democrats have run from Obama since 2010 in every way they can. The two senators voted early that year for the Affordable Care Act, although the electorate had already been poisoned on it. Once the president’s name had been successfully attached by the media to health reform that formerly had been widely popular, it became deadly in the South. Two of the Arkansas Democrats in the House, including Mike Ross, voted against it as well as Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who cast a meaningless vote against it on reconciliation after helping write the bill.
Only Sen. Mark Pryor, although more conservative than Lincoln, did not flee the president entirely, and he has paid a heavy price. Last week, to the dismay of many Democratic candidates and the unrestrained glee of Republicans, Pryor invited the president to come see the destruction of the tornadoes in Central Arkansas. Ordinarily, a visit by even an unpopular president to a scene of suffering is a bonanza for his party’s candidates. That may not be the case with Barack Obama. Republicans will be scouring the coverage for photos of a schmoozing Obama and Pryor without the destruction in the background. His foes have a photographer following Pryor wherever he goes.
The backup bête noire, to return to the French label that she might use, is Pelosi, the Democratic leader and former speaker. Asa Hutchinson’s ads make, Mike Ross, his gubernatorial opponent, Nancy Pelosi’s close friend and subject. “Arkansas deserves better than Congressman Ross putting the interests of Nancy Pelosi, President Obama and union bosses ahead of Arkansas workers,” a Hutchinson commercial said last week about Ross’ vote years ago for a failed bill that would have put unions on a par with management in union elections.
This works. Every big commercial buy linking Ross with Pelosi drives him down a couple of points in the polls, although Ross cast one of the few votes against her as Democratic leader at the beginning of his last term. Democrats running for other congressional seats have to announce that if they are elected they will oppose Pelosi for minority leader or for speaker.
The commercials typically run carefully selected photos of Pelosi with drooping eyelids, to fortify the narrative that she is a party girl and a drunk. Pelosi, 74, the mother of five and grandmother of eight, actually doesn’t drink alcohol and is a fitness addict.
Republicans have made bogeymen of Democratic speakers since Tip O’Neill (who did imbibe). Soon after her election as speaker, a right-wing group circulated a story that Speaker Pelosi threw lavish and drunken parties on the Air Force jet that flew her and her friends and fellow Democrats across the country and around the world. It turned out that Pelosi’s congressional travels cost almost exactly the same as those of her Republican predecessor, Dennis Hastert. But the Republican attacks worked. By 2010 her national ratings were 11 percent approval and 37 percent disapproval.
Pelosi makes an unusual ogre. Her fairly brief sojourn as speaker will go down as one of the most successful since Sam Rayburn. She became speaker owing to her ability to get things done with rambunctious Democrats from the right and left. When the Affordable Care Act becomes recognized as one of the great congressional achievements since Social Security, she should get credit for it, and not so much Barack Obama.
When a Republican replaced Ted Kennedy in the Senate, depriving the party of a workable majority, and it was clear that the massive advertising campaign against the emerging health reform bill had changed public perceptions of it, the White House adopted a new strategy: let health reform slide for a few years and work for small, doable goals. Pelosi told the president to buck up and show some resolve. It was finally the moment that a goal sought by leaders of both parties since Teddy Roosevelt could be achieved and he should not let it pass. She drove the House committees to finish their work, cobbled together the conflicting bills, pushed them through the House of Representative and forced the affable but bumbling Senate leader, Harry Reid, and the Finance chairman to follow suit.
So, it should be called Pelosicare, although that would help Mark Pryor and the other imperiled Democrats very little. One bogeyman or -woman is as good as another.