Teaching Obama a finesse

Barack Obama may turn out thankful for Arkansas, though he got creamed there. This little state can give him an excuse for not obliging the left, which will help him with the vital center.

This small mid-South state is nominally Democratic but dominated by rural conservative voters who have no use for national Democratic liberalism. What the state gets from that is an abundance of Democratic officeholders, but a thorough redness when a presidential race comes around every four years.

This little state's nominal in-state conservative Democratic tradition has netted it two moderate to center-right Democratic U.S. senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor.

Savvy Senate watchers know that there is vast nuance in all this talk of a filibuster-proof Senate as Democrats prepare to occupy 58 or 59 seats with 60 votes needed to end debate. They know that two of those Democratic seats belong to members from Arkansas who must answer to a rural conservative electorate and are liable to cut and run to the right at a moment's notice.

These two Democratic senators finesse all this as best they can, and they are good at it. The Arkansas premium on finesse is what trained native son Bill Clinton in his famous dexterity.

Pryor and Lincoln serve the party whenever possible. But they reserve the right to draw the line when the Washington partisan leadership wants them to do something that would hurt them back home. Essentially they say to Harry Reid: Do you want two Democrats from Arkansas in the Senate, helping you four times in five, helping you be majority and not minority leader, or don't you?

This is especially relevant on this "card check" business by which Obama is strung out on a promise to deliver the law organized labor covets to allow unions to be formed when a mere half the work force signs a card. Management is scared to death of this prospect, especially with an economic crisis at hand.

It seems vividly apparent that Obama does not want to keep this promise in any expeditious way. He has made a decided move during the transition to the pragmatic center. He wants to focus on the big essentials, economic stimulus and health care.

He does not want to repeat Clinton's early mistakes of going too far left, losing smart focus and engendering polarization.

Tellingly, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, would not provide a straight answer when asked at a business gathering in New York if Obama would push card check.

So let us introduce our president-elect to what we call the Arkansas finesse.

For all the Democratic gains, this measure still does not have 60 votes to end filibuster. That's true even if Al Franken pulls out Minnesota and a moderate Republican, perhaps Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, votes to end debate.

That's because Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, is talking about how the bill needs fuller debate and amendments, while Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, is talking about how we ought to focus instead on fixing the economy and health care if we really want to help both working folks and employers.

Both know their Arkansas bread is buttered by management, not labor.

Obama can be for card check while explaining to his liberal base that there's no reason to push it because those yahoos from Arkansas are going to kill it.

Blame the founding fathers. They were the ones who gave every state an equal number of U.S. senators -- two.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.