Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two Senators

Why Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln switched places on taxes.

The folks of Little Rock on May 5 got to see an odd spectacle. President Bush told a nearly packed house at the 2,600-seat Robinson Center Music Hall in downtown Little Rock how much the economy badly needs a tax cut as a shot in the arm. On the other side of town, in the state capitol, Republican Governor Mike Huckabee lectured a joint session of the legislature about the urgent need for tax hikes.

Huckabee is certainly not alone as a Republican governor eager to raise taxes, but his tax-and-spend fever has effects in Washington — specifically on the voting record of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), whom Huckabee may challenge in 2004.

Two months before, President Bush was in Florida before a small-business group, expounding on the need for tax cuts. That same day, on Capitol Hill, Rep. Pat Toomey (R., Penn.) introduced two tax bills — one to repeal Bill Clinton’s tax on Social Security benefits, and one to make permanent the income-tax reductions in Bush’s 2001 tax cut.

Toomey, of course, is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) in the 2004 GOP Senate primary.

This is the story of two challengers, but it is also the story of two incumbent senators. Specter and Lincoln are both fiscally centrist candidates facing challenges — ostensibly from the right.

Their Republican challengers are pulling them in opposing directions. Specter’s opponent is legitimately from the right, and the senator’s voting record is leaning ever rightward in response. Lincoln, however, faces a challenge from a Republican who has sacrificed his limited-government credentials. Not only is the pressure off her to keep taxes low, but he’s given her room to stretch to the left.

Last Thursday night, on Bush’s tax cut, Specter voted “aye” and Lincoln voted “no.” Following the path of these two incumbent senators (both up for reelection next year) to these votes can teach Republicans an important lesson.

LINCOLN’S LURCH LEFT

In 2001, Blanche Lincoln was one of twelve Democrats to vote for President Bush’s tax cut package. Not only that, she railed on the Senate floor to have the ten-percent bracket implemented immediately and to reform the Alternative Minimum Tax which was increasingly encroaching on middle-class workers.

Since the tax cut passed in 2001, Lincoln has sponsored a bill that would make permanent the elimination of the death tax.

But now her tune is different. Last Thursday, she voted against the tax cut, nearly sinking it. Also on Thursday, she voted almost the straight Democratic line on the slew of amendments that came to the floor. During Finance Committee negotiations earlier in the spring, she worked to pare the bill down.

This is the opposite of what one would expect: a Democrat moving to the left in an election year in a state won by Bush. We saw two years ago Max Baucus (D., Mt.), Max Cleland (D., Ga.) and Jean Carnahan (D., Mo.) all got behind Bush’s tax cut in the face of tough reelection bids.

What’s different in this case is fairly simple. Blanche Lincoln sees that she will likely be running against a tax hiker. Lincoln already has a record as a tax-cutter, and this year, at worst, she is holding taxes steady. Come campaign time, Gov. Huckabee is impotent to attack her for raising taxes — and George W. Bush can’t pull the magic here he did in a handful of states in 2002.

So Mike Huckabee’s resistance to spending cuts costs not only Arkansas taxpayers, but taxpayers nationwide now have their purse strings controlled, to a degree, by a well-protected Blanche Lincoln.

ARLEN, BUSH’s DARLIN’

Arlen Specter is about as a good a fiscal conservative as George W. Bush was a Yale student. Over the last decade, Specter’s score with the National Taxpayers’ Union averages between a C and a C-minus.

While he eventually got on board with the 2001 cuts, he did everything in his power to shrink them — and he had some success. Bush started with a package to reduce Americans’ tax burden by $1.6 trillion over the next ten years. What we got was $1.3 trillion.

Specter was one of five Republicans to vote for a class-warfare amendment almost wiping out the tax cuts at the top of the scale and expanding the breaks at the bottom. He was one of six Republicans who voted to preserve the death tax. On a handful of other liberal amendments, he joined his big-tax brethren.

Come 2003, his record indicates he feels the tax cuts he tried to pare down two years earlier were too small. He is fully supportive of the 2003 tax-cut package and resisted the push to limit the “growth” package to $350 billion over ten years.

It is common knowledge in Washington that Specter is moving right — on all sorts of issues — because he is facing a Republican primary next year against Rep. Pat Toomey (who has drifted to the right himself, since arriving in Washington).

Specter needs to court Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania, the bulk of whom are conservatives. Toomey’s chances are slim (Specter’s war chest is massive), but, regardless, he is doing good work pushing Specter to the right.

LESSONS FOR REPUBLICANS

The story of Lincoln and Specter is really the story of Republicans Huckabee and Toomey. On taxes, Toomey acts like a Republican. Huckabee, meanwhile, looks more like a Bill Clinton for the new millennium.

Toomey, in all likelihood, will lose next summer. The odds favor Lincoln in a Lincoln-Huckabee match-up. These outcomes would make the Senate a bit more liberal than it would otherwise be for the next six years.

But for the next 18 months, there is still important work to do. Toomey is doing that work — forcing Specter to back a tax cut that will enrich Americans for the next decade at least. Huckabee, meanwhile, is failing miserably. By fighting for higher taxes Huckabee has given Lincoln the liberty to drift as far left on taxes as she would like — and to vote against Bush’s cut.

The lesson is not a new one, but it’s one the establishment often tries to make conservatives forget: When Republicans field candidates who act like Republicans, there are benefits even if they don’t win. When Republicans put up tax-and-spend moderates, the political battlefield is shifted a few steps to the left.

Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.

Timothy P. CarneyMr. Carney, the author of Alienated America, is the commentary editor of the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Recommended

The Latest