Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln…

Recent profiles of Blanche Lincoln say little about her policy priorities

What does Blanche Lincoln want, and why does she want it?

The question is, at the moment, more consequential than it might normally be. As a member of the small, happy band of moderate Democrats who control the fate of health care reform, the heretofore obscure senior senator from Arkansas has been getting a lot of attention lately from both opponents and supporters of reform. She’s also been fielding a lot more calls from reporters: The Washington Post published a profile of Lincoln about a week ago, and in the last few days she has been at the center of stories in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Politico.

Which makes it a bit surprising that, from reading this latest round of coverage, it’s actually kind of hard to tell what Lincoln wants. While these stories devote a lot of space to Lincoln’s political predicament—supporting the bill could make her more vulnerable to Republican attacks in her 2010 re-election campaign, while opposing it could cost her vital Democratic support—they say little about her policy priorities other than her opposition to any meaningful public option.

Actually, the NYT’s Lincoln story, which appeared in print Sunday, said even less than that. As Spencer Ackerman notes, the story doesn’t explain any of Lincoln’s misgivings about the Democratic proposal. After quoting Lincoln’s vague comment that she is “thinking about the 450,000 Arkansans who have no health insurance,” the article immediately moves on to its real interest:

Yet the political implications are inescapable. Of the swing-state Democrats struggling with the health care issue, Mrs. Lincoln, a 49-year-old mother of twins who is married to a physician, is one of the few set to be on the ballot next year. Republicans are lining up to oppose her in a state where President Obama performed badly in the 2008 election.

And so on. We never do hear Lincoln’s views about what she thinks will help those Arkansans. To be fair to the Times, its main story on the Senate bill did quote Lincoln’s floor statement, in which she announced that she would not support the “public option” as currently proposed. Normally, though, a story dedicated to a key lawmaker’s role should include more detail about her views, not less, than the general wrap-up.

The LA Times and Politico pieces, which both appear to be more ambitious and more deeply reported than the Times story, fare better, but only to a point. The LAT article offers reporting from Arkansas, so readers actually get to meet some of Lincoln’s constituents. Again, though, the focus is on Lincoln’s political dilemma. It isn’t until near the end of the story that we hear anything about her views, and even then it’s pretty thin:

After equivocating, Lincoln came out against the [public option], even with a provision allowing states to opt out. As federal taxpayers, she said, Arkansans would be “on the hook” for any costs regardless of the state’s participation.

…True to her moderate leanings, Lincoln talks of incremental change. She noted that many of the uninsured in Arkansas — about 500,000, or roughly 1 in 6 — could be covered under existing programs, such as Medicare, if they just signed up. “I have a problem with trying to re-create the wheel,” Lincoln said.

Replace the LAT’s quotes from Lincoln’s Arkansan constituents with some comments from inside-the-Beltway types, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of what the Politico story is like. After an opening anecdote and some boilerplate quotes from Lincoln, we’re into the territory of approval ratings, political strategists, and micro-scandals about when her intentions became public. And then, finally, this:

On Saturday, Lincoln stressed that, in the end, she would not vote for Reid’s version of the public option, which would allow states to opt out of the plan. She said she wanted a complete “alternative” to the public plan, such as nonprofit insurance providers that would compete with private insurers.

It sounds like she may be harking back to the discarded “co-op” idea—but that’s not really clear, because the story doesn’t pursue this thread.

The best of the recent Lincoln profiles may be the earliest, Shailagh Murray’s Washington Post piece of Nov. 17. Nearly a week before Lincoln’s shifting views on the public option caught the attention of the Web world, the Post documented Lincoln’s newfound resistance to the proposal. The article also noted a few of her policy concerns other than the public option (small business coverage, the cost of medical procedures, coordinating care).

But the Post story has weaknesses, too, including its failure to explore Lincoln’s statement that we “can’t afford” a “government-funded public option.” She doesn’t agree with most of her caucus on this point, so what accounts for the difference? Is she interpreting the facts differently? Is she working from a different set of values? How does she explain the shift in her thinking? Can she explain the shift in her thinking? And is the public option the sum total of her interest in health care reform—is there anything she values that isn’t in the bill? From these stories, it’s not clear.

This is, in part, the old, earnest complaint that political journalists should spend more time on policy and less on politics: a profile of Lincoln could have been a vehicle to explore the ongoing debate over, for example, the public option. At the very least, it could have mentioned her policy views before the closing paragraphs.

But these stories don’t really even deliver on the political level, because—just as you can’t seriously discuss potential policy alternatives without noting political constraints—you can’t explain how someone might respond to a political dilemma without discussing what her policy priorities are. It makes sense for the press to focus on the political pressures and constraints Lincoln faces; if she wants to keep her seat, those factors are no doubt on her mind. At the same time, though, Lincoln is in that seat for a reason: she has policy goals that she would like to achieve. Maybe she’s being straightforward about those goals; maybe she’s being cagey. Maybe they’re well-reasoned and on point; maybe they’re incoherent. We don’t really know, because the coverage doesn’t say. And by giving scant attention to that seemingly straightforward angle, the press underplayed a key part of the story.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.