If you have followed the Arkansas election ads you know that each party faces a single challenge. Republicans must overcome a philosophy problem, Democrats an Obama problem.
Last week, the strategies to counter the problems were on stark display, ending with the amazing Republican capitulation on raising the minimum wage in Arkansas — anathema for Republicans since the first federal wage law was passed in 1933.
Republicans have the easier task sublimating their problem. Just use the strategy employed for the past two elections across the South and the Great Plains: Run pictures of the black president and say your opponent is his footman or will be if he gets in office. For good measure, if your opponent is running for Congress or has been there, make him also a vassal of Nancy Pelosi, the 74-year-old House minority leader and grandmother, and Photoshop her into the ad, too. Everyone knows she represents the city of libertines, San Francisco.
If you are Sen. Mark Pryor or gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross it doesn’t matter that you went along with the president less often than almost any other Democrat in Congress and that many of the votes with him would be viewed favorably by most Arkansans if they were severed from Obama. It suffices that Pryor voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Obamacare, and it doesn’t matter that the infamous law has made medical treatment accessible to 250,000 Arkansans, delivered $17.7 million in premium rebates to Arkansas insurance policyholders and $125 million in drug savings for Arkansas seniors or that it protects Arkansans forever from having their insurance company curtail their benefits.
For Ross, it doesn’t matter that he voted against Obamacare as a congressman and then joined Republican efforts to repeal it.
For Democrats in 2014 there may be no antidote to their Obama problem but history and time.
The Republican identity problem is proving to be more manageable for the party’s big candidates and problematical for Democrats. The philosophical problem is the common Republican view that the government of the United States is rotten because it regulates business too much and spends too much effort and money helping the down and outs at the expense of the successful people.
The Republican and libertarian antigovernment rhetoric goes over well with most voters, especially in the South, where it was government that forced civil rights and its progeny of social-justice reforms on a people who were perfectly happy with social relations as they were. Beyond that, most people don’t want major functions of government tampered with: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits, clean-air and -water standards, farm support, disaster aid, food support, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, worker safety, college aid, domestic violence protections, or a tax code that once made people with wealth pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the rest.
But most people also don’t make the connection between those functions and Republican attacks on government. The Democratic strategy is to make voters see that connection. While Republican ads dwell on Obama, Pelosi and Obamacare, Democratic ads make the link that Republicans, especially the true-believing libertarians like Senate candidate Tom Cotton, mean exactly those programs when they claim to be fighting big government. And unlike many, Cotton has pretty consistently voted his philosophy, which has cost him some of the ardor for Cotton the 2012 antigovernment candidate.
His votes against farm and nutrition aid, disaster relief, children’s medical research, student loans and protections against domestic violence and for bills that would gradually phase out Medicare as we know it gave Democrats an opening. His poll numbers went down and Pryor’s up. His explanations helped some — his votes didn’t actually stop the funding for those things because his side lost, thanks to a stash of moderate Republican votes for the winners.
You shouldn’t worry, see, because even when Republicans have gained the presidency and both houses of Congress — briefly under Eisenhower, Reagan and George W. Bush — they didn’t deliver the coup de grâce to big government. Eisenhower told his furious brother that Republicans would commit suicide if they scrapped the New Deal.
But the minimum-wage farce last week showed the beauty of the Republican strategy: surrender en masse and claim victory.
Not one Republican running for major office in Arkansas favored the initiative that raises the Arkansas minimum wage until last week, when the Secretary of State finally had to certify that the petitions had far more signatures than were needed to get the act on the ballot. French Hill, the Little Rock banker running for Congress, had said he opposed the government ever putting a wage floor at any amount. Businesses should be able to pay people however little they will work for. Asa Hutchinson, the GOP candidate for governor, repeatedly said he opposed a wage floor set by voters. As a congressman, he had voted against the federal minimum wage. Cotton just wouldn’t say.
Polls show the initiative is hugely popular. So last week Cotton, Hutchinson, Hill and Congressmen Tim Griffin and Rick Crawford all announced they would vote for the initiated act, which will raise the Arkansas minimum wage well above the federal level, which they had formerly said would be devastating.
They’ll claim credit for bleeding for the working poor and probably get it. Democrats could only be amazed.