opinion by Scott Shackelford
Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.
Editor's note: Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may or may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
President Barack Obama garnered nearly 60% of the vote in last month’s Democratic primary — enough to place first place, of course, but enough to embarrass too.
A Tennessee lawyer by the name of John Wolfe was competing for his party’s nomination, and with hardly any hope of making a dent in the 2012 election cycle he managed to capture a whopping 42% of the vote. That’s even more impressive when you consider that Wolfe is a political unknown to most Arkansans, including the state’s fading liberal sect.
Picking someone with so many unfamiliar public policy positions — and who has a great chance at accomplishing little with his 15 minutes of fame — must be seen as something of a protest vote.
The notion that thousands of voters would back such an unknown quantity for the White House is not incomprehensible. Yes, President Obama has done many good things, like ending Osama Bin Laden’s life, keeping congressional Republicans from implanting their most ideological proposals, and getting the United States back into the world’s good graces.
Still, at home, the economy continues to struggle. At 8.1%, unemployment remains a serious thorn in Obama’s reelection chances. Some powerful conservatives view many of the president’s policies here at home as nothing less than a collective threat to national security. Tea Party regulars are getting downright giddy about the chances of kicking the 44th U.S. president to the curb this fall and starting over with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Conservatives across the nation, and independents representing various socio-economic cross-sections, don’t believe in President Obama for many reasons. They don’t agree with his attempt to bring health care to 44 million uninsured citizens, or Uncle Sam’s ever-expanding cost and size. Some still fume about the auto bailouts, not to mention a federal stimulus package that failed to do much stimulating. The full list of complaints is long. Supporters insist the list of reasons to praise President Obama’s performance during his time in office is a good deal longer.
But why did Arkansans vote their displeasure in such strong numbers? Aside from the possibility that some Republican votes for Wolfe may have boosted his election night tally, the fact remains that Arkansas is quickly becoming more like the rest of the nation, where the electorate views compromise as a sign of weakness and ideologues as the true believers. In that world, where leaders who strive to broker legislative deals — as President Obama has done throughout his first term — can lose public confidence, the president’s reelection may be less of a sure bet than his supporters realize.
It’s worth noting that many Arkansas D’s are among the nation’s most conservative, which makes Wolfe’s stated progressivism an unlikely desire. Furthermore, Wolfe’s support largely came from the state’s rural counties. It is easy to understand pent-up frustrations over perceived presidential mistakes, but to choose an unknown candidate with no hope of winning seems like something else entirely.
If you see voter turnout in this race as a measure of widespread public discontent with the direction the country is going, that they would back such an unknown name is beside the point. Maybe people were looking for a cheap and easy way to send a tough message to the nation’s boss — and perhaps no more thought went into it than that.
Everyone understood that May’s vote was only a party primary (often a formality for a president seeing reelection), and not the general election, which might mean folks were willing to be a bit more cavalier in their selection process than usual.
Only I don’t understand what regular Democratic Party primary voters would want Obama to do so differently. Sure, I disagree with the president about this issue or that topic, but creating public policy is many times more difficult than on-camera pundits suggest, and the president has done well with a Congress that views him as illegitimate in some circles. Arkansas Democrats fully appreciate the recalcitrance the president is up against, right?
Maybe the opportunity to blow off a little steam was just too tempting. I wouldn’t have a clue what overarching themes “Wolfe supporters” were crying out about. Maybe for some everything seems weirdly off-kilter, like the best days of the United States are sliding away in the opposite direction. Maybe that vulnerability is beginning to reach into the voting booth.
Odds are that May’s surprising primary results is less about personal dissatisfaction with President Obama and more about the Natural State becoming a legitimate two-party world — a place where the commander-in-chief’s brand of progressivism fails to jive. Arkansas is, after all, on the verge of creating a Republican majority in one or both state Houses this fall.
And this conservative land of ours is sure to be won by Romney on election night.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so shocking that voters in an increasingly red state would be so willing to embarrass a sitting president.
Democracy makes such surprising possibilities a constant threat to the establishment, which is as it should be. People have the right to use their vote any way they so please.
And besides, our leaders exist to serve us, not the other way around, and anytime the public itches strongly enough to make a change of any kind, then they shall have it.
But that doesn’t make understanding citizenship’s sudden whims any easier.