Arkansas, home state of Bill Clinton and Wal-mart, has emerged as a crucial battleground in the coming mid-term United States elections. Long-standing Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln, is struggling to hold her seat. One of the organisations supporting her used outsourcing to India to savage an opponent. Yet Lincoln is seen as an establishment figure. What gives?
In normal circumstances, Lincoln would have been a shoo-in for another term on Capitol Hill. Not since Slick Willie has an Arkansas politician earned such a high domestic profile. Even internationally Lincoln has traction — she was once profiled by The Economist. But the financial crisis, double-digit unemployment and their fallout have put US politics on the boil.
Lincoln is fighting a two-stage battle. She has already been forced into a runoff election, due next week, for her own party’s nomination. Here she is battling an outsider from the left of her party, Bill Halter. After that, one of them takes on the Republican candidate, John Boozman, in November.
Partly because of her profile, Lincoln’s campaign has become a lightning rod for national advocacy groups. Halter has received an estimated $ 5 million from labour unions who want to push out centrist Democrats like Lincoln. Halter’s line is their line: he has attacked the incumbent senator for supporting the post-Lehman Brothers bank bailout, for voting for a health care bill that has no public option and, supporting free trade agreements.
Lincoln has been a middle-of-the-road Democrat, pragmatic and constructive in difficult times. Which is why Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have both endorsed her. But working class anger being what it is, Lincoln has preferred to keep a distance from Washington. “I represent Arkansas, not the Democratic Party,” has been her refrain.
Outsourcing entered the campaign last month. A small conservative lobby, Americans for Job Security (AJS), paid $ 900,000 for a set of web and print ads in both English and badly-translated Hindi, thanking Halter for outsourcing jobs to India. There was even a video clip of, as bloggers commented, an elderly American trying to sound like an Indian with the attire and obsequiousness of a South Asian restaurateur. The voice-over accompanied by sitar music: “Bangalore says, ‘Thanks, Bill Halter’.”The charge was thin. Halter had been on the board of a firm that had set up a research centre in India but these jobs had never existed in the US.
More interesting was who paid for the ad. No one was quite sure who the AJS were. They described themselves as supportive of “free markets and pro-paycheck public policies” and their backers as “business leaders and entrepreneurs.” The US Chamber of Commerce denied any connection.
The AJS probably represents some segment of big business and is being used to fund tactical campaigning. Why fund a Democrat like Lincoln? One, she is a moderate. Halter has positioned himself far to the left and firmly in the union corner. Lincoln is a leftist who has already learnt the art of legislative compromise. Two is that Lincoln is the weaker candidate against Republican John Boozman. Surveys showed that if Boozman had Lincoln as a candidate, he would win 65 to 70 per cent of the vote. If he had Halter, his margin would be down by six to 10 percentage points. Arkansas is poor, overly agrarian, and Southern.
However, it has become a bellwether for the US popular mood. Lincoln has shifted left in her rhetoric to fend off Halter. The anti-outsourcing ad was probably a corporate attempt to undermine Halter’s working class support and part of a broader strategy of keeping loonies out of office.
Other than attracting the ire of Indian-America, the outsourcing advertisement seems to have sunk without a trace. One reason outsourcing didn’t vibe is that while Arkansas has lost jobs, India is probably not seen as the culprit. Trade lost the state 62,200 jobs in 2007 alone, says the Economic Policy Institute, but going by the national average 70 per cent plus of these were in manufacturing. Even in Arkansas they know these mostly went to China.