Newspaper article Roll Call

Not His Father's Arkansas

Newspaper article Roll Call

Not His Father's Arkansas

Article excerpt

I have been thinking for months about how politics has changed over the past decade, but those changes struck home in a very obvious way while I was reading a recent Washington Post article written by the very able Philip Rucker.

"Senator's parents hit trail to preserve Ark. dynasty" was a front page piece that noted the efforts of former governor and former senator David Pryor and his wife, Barbara, to help their son, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, win re-election next month.

David Pryor won three races for Congress, two elections for governor and three Senate contests (losing only a Senate primary in 1972) between 1966 and 1990. He rarely had a tough race, and he was held in high regard by many Arkansans, even those who didn't vote for him.

Rucker's piece shows that many greeted the former governor warmly, but it also demonstrates how politics has evolved, and how that change has altered the way voters evaluate candidates for Congress.

"We're campaigning for Mark because everybody likes mamas and daddies," said the senator's mother to one voter, according to Rucker.

Well, yes, people understand why parents support their children, and nobody is going to blame the vulnerable senator or his parents for stumping for him. But David and Barbara Pryor aren't likely to get many votes for their son. Not this year, at least.

Partisanship and ideology are linked more closely now than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Back then, the two parties didn't stand for opposing ideologies. They each included liberal, moderate and conservative members of Congress and attracted voters from across the ideological spectrum.

Democratic voters sent liberals like Hubert Humphrey, conservatives like Richard Russell and, somewhat later, moderates like David Pryor and Sam Nunn to the Senate. Republicans could dispatch conservatives Barry Goldwater and Karl Mundt to Capitol Hill at the same time that other Republicans were sending moderates and liberals like Chuck Percy and John Lindsay.

That's no longer the case, and it's a large part of the reason why a gentleman like David Pryor, who had an impressive political career, has such little influence on Arkansas voters these days.

The increased importance of ideology also has affected campaigning.

A couple of months ago, I received an email from an old friend who also happens to be one of the best reporters, and most astute political observers, on this or any planet. He noted repeatedly what a bad candidate Arkansas Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is. Others also have remarked that Pryor is great at pressing the flesh, while Cotton clearly lacks that skill.

Cotton, who is a narrow but clear favorite against Mark Pryor next month, is not a back-slapping, joke-telling good old boy. He is a serious, Harvard and Harvard Law School-educated Iraq veteran who served with the 101st Airborne. …

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