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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arkansas: Test Of America's Shift to Right

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore may be sweeping all before them in the presidential election, but each of them has left real trouble behind for the Democratic party in his home state.


Tennessee was once a loyal Democratic state. Al Gore virtually inherited his U.S. Senate seat from his father. But today, the governor, the two U.S. senators and five of the state's nine congressmen are all Republicans.


Just across the great Mississippi river from Memphis, Tennessee, the city than gave us the blues, lies Clinton's state of Arkansas. The vast low-lying riverbank that makes up eastern Arkansas is known as the Delta.


Black field workers still toil in the cotton fields and the rice paddies, as they have for centuries. They tinker with pickup trucks outside flimsy shacks where ugly dogs doze on the porches. This is about as poor as rural America gets.


"It's been a banner year. Great crops, Great prices. The farmers have got a smile on their faces for the first time since about 1973," says Marion Berry, Democratic candidate for the First Congressional District in Arkansas.


There is relief in his voice, a politician assessing a factor which might help him win a tight race. This should be a safe seat in a traditionally Democratic state, particularly as the president from Arkansas looks bound for easy re-election.


But the Democratic party of Arkansas has been psychologically devastated by the toll the Clinton presidency has visited on the sons of Arkansas who went with him to Washington. The White House aide Vince Foster is dead by his own hand. Webb Hubbell, former mayor of Little Rock and a judge on the state's Supreme Court, is in prison.


Others resigned in disgrace or despair as the Whitewater scandals made Arkansas appear an American Transylvania, a corrupt and dangerous rural backwater of casual ethics and insider deals. The Democratic party in Arkansas was less a real party than, in the words of one local journalist "a cult of personality -- and the personality left town."


Nor was the personality cult that effective. Clinton carried his home state in the 1992 presidential election with 55 percent of the vote, the same as Michael Dukakis had got four years earlier. George Bush got more votes among Arkansans under the age of 40 than Clinton did.


The question is whether Arkansas is just following the Southern trend, of a traditionally Democratic state with a lot of social and religious conservatives shifting towards the Republican camp, or whether the Clinton factor and the local fallout of the Whitewater scandals makes this a special case.


Either way, this casts a shadow on Clinton's Arkansas legacy, just as Gore's native Tennessee seems to be turning its back on the Democratic party. The lesson seems to be that this year's presidential race is an anomaly, and beneath the level of the White House, the conservative shift of American politics continues.


Elsewhere in the South, the Democrats seem condemned to lose more House and Senate seats and to have to fight ever harder to retain the few they still have. For the Republicans, this is the light at the end of the Clinton tunnel. They may be losing this year's battle for the presidency, but they may be winning the longer political war.