06.14.10

How Hot Is Blanche Lincoln?

The Arkansas senator may be unlikely to win reelection come November, but her elegant, defiant stand against the union juggernaut in the primary has made her the thinking conservative’s Democratic pin-up.

There’s something about Blanche. The name, so redolent of a certain archetype of American womanhood, is irresistible to anyone red-blooded. Tennessee Williams knew what he was doing when he planted it on his Streetcar. But Blanche DuBois is not a patch on Blanche Lincoln, that handsome, winsome slayer of labor unions, a woman who is now, without peer or dispute, the most fragrant Democrat that any Republican could envision.

The devilish conviction with which she took on her tormentors suggested a finely honed sense of both history and duty—duty not merely to her party, but also to the wider nation, in putting antidemocratic labor in its place.

But first the bad news: Blanche is unlikely to win reelection to the Senate in November, badly bruised as she is by her primary in a state—Arkansas—that is now virulently anti-Obama and was carried by John McCain in 2008. She has, however, done enough in the primary against union-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter to have earned forever a nation’s gratitude. Elegantly, energetically, she stood in the path of the union juggernaut, her graceful arms akimbo, her lithe figure erect, her chiseled jaw set in defiant opposition, her prom-red lips pursed in the combative half-smile of a woman scorned.

Blanche Lincoln's first television campaign ad

Video screenshot

The unions—which had made of gracious Blanche their bête noire—craved also to make of her a punitive example of political roadkill. As Michael Barone has written, “they decided to oppose Lincoln to teach every Democrat a lesson: If you oppose Big Labor we will end your career.” Instead, they gave her career a frantic and invigorating new lease, allowing her the opportunity to play a modern-day Joan of Arc, battling with righteous, feminine passion against the forces of oppression and darkness, of card checks and lumpen thuggery.

The ugly, syndicalist left is still a force to be reckoned with. It still has unrestricted access to the Ear of Obama; and come November, it will muster every trick in the political pack of cards to sway the vote for Jerry Brown in California, as he battles for the state’s governorship with Meg Whitman. Here’s what a friend of mine, who is a close observer of California politics, said to me in a recent email: “The labor unions will play this one down and very dirty. Smears, demonizing, nasty stuff. They ruined Arnold’s year of reform—the media totally sided with the unions and did very little fact-checking of their often wild attacks on Arnold—and they will use pages from that successful playbook. By October, Whitman will be said to be trying to take pensions away from firefighter widows, just as they convinced voters Arnold was trying to do five years ago.”

In her Democratic Senate primary runoff, Blanche Lincoln took on these forces, and smears like these, this kind of abuse and this very kind of obloquy—and still won. For sheer courage in standing up to union mau-mauing, she has earned political credit of reckless, even subprime proportions. There was, to be sure, an element of self-preservation in the way she stood up to Big Labor; but the panache with which she fought, the devilish conviction with which she took on her tormentors, suggested a finely honed sense of both history and duty—duty not merely to the Democratic Party, in saving it from an episode of unseemly capitulation to the unions, but also to the wider nation, in putting antidemocratic labor in its place. As Kimberley A. Strassel wrote in her Wall Street Journal column, “Arkansas was supposed to get [union] politics back on track. Instead, the unions lost, irritated the White House, and exposed a glaring weakness.”

Hilariously—and painfully ironically—the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sent out a campaign email on Lincoln’s behalf, lauding the fact that she’d fought “the unions.” This is bizarre, given that the DSCC depends in great part on unions to elect Senate Democrats. Even more hilariously, The Washington Post reported that Chuck “Gargantuan Labor” Schumer lauded Lincoln’s primary victory by holding up his two fists (the left one hypothecated to the SEIU, the right one to AFSCME), and said of her: “Fighting Wall Street with one hand, unions with the other.”

If Blanche Lincoln has managed to turn the Democratic Party’s own iron base into a convenient object of Schumerian scorn, that's a monumental development, even if it lasts for only as long as Senator Schumer finds expedient. Blanche Lincoln has earned our effusive regard. And if she loses in November—as polls and pundits suggest she will—might President Obama confer on her a suitable reward: the Congressional Medal of Freedom, for services to dragon-slaying?

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)