True Blue? TPM Asks Bill Halter: How Progressive Are You?

Progressives across the country have been overjoyed with Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s decision to challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the May 18 Senate primary. Activists on the left feel that Halter’s candidacy offers them a chance to punish Lincoln for taking stands on key issues that run counter to the progressive agenda.

Much of the progressive effort before Halter entered the race was focused on attacking Lincoln, rather than building up Halter. To many on the left, she is the embodiment of the conservative faction in the Democratic Senate caucus that kept many key components of President Obama’s agenda — most notably health care reform — from sailing smoothly through a Congress the Democrats control. Those angry at Lincoln got their wish Monday when Halter decided to enter the primary. But we wanted to know just how progressive a candidate Halter will be now that he’s the standard-bearer for progressive discontent across the country. In a brief interview this morning, we got our answer.Halter told me he doesn’t like labels when I asked him if he’s a progressive. “When campaigns use one-word labels, typically it’s meant to distract and destroy,” he said.

Halter wasn’t afraid to put the label on himself when comparing himself to the rest of the Senate field in Arkansas, however. “I do think I’m more progressive than the other candidates in the race,” he said before telling me his legacy as Lt. Gov has been to “help Arkansans advance and make progress.”

On the issues, Halter often came down on the left-hand side of the line. He told me he likes candidates that talk specifics and in most cases he put his money where his mouth was, offering detailed answers on a number of policy fronts. One notable exception was cap-and-trade, where Halter took a vague stance on the House version of the bill past last year saying only that it needed “significant changes” before he could support it.

Here’s a rundown of Halter’s stances on the issues we discusses. Judge for yourself whether his answers make him a progressive or not.

Card check:
Lincoln’s public opposition to the card check provisions of the Employee Free Choice Act last year led to the first threats from organized labor that it could withdraw its support from her in a primary. Yesterday, the AFL-CIO made good on the threat, pledging $3 million in independent expenditures to help Halter defeat her.

Halter said he would have been “inclined to support” the version of EFCA that Lincoln rejected, but he stressed to me today that arguments over that bill are essentially a moot point.

“The fact is, the discussions have moved beyond that,” he said. Halter said that he supports current union-backed efforts to revise EFCA to make it easier for workers to unionize by speeding up the elections process and making it tougher for employers to stand in the way.

“The final language hasn’t been emerged yet,” Halter said, “but the fact is, we do need to provide working men and women with the ability to come together and decide whether or not they want to be represented in a union.”

Public Option: On this topic, Halter was very clear — he supports a robust public option, modeled on Medicare, that would compete directly with insurance companies. He said that if he were in the Senate today, he’d support using reconciliation to add a public option into the current Senate bill.

On the trail, Halter said he’ll use better messaging to sell his proposal to voters. “If you ask 100 Arkansans what [“public option”] means, you’re going to get 100 different answers,” he said. “People don’t know what it is. So rather than go around talking about a “public option,” I’m going to outline for people exactly what my plan is.”

Cap-and-Trade: Lincoln has drawn fire from environmental and progressive groups for her rejection of the House-passed cap-and-trade bill last year. Her decision to join with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and call on Congress to make it illegal for the EPA to regulate carbon emissions has been a particular bone of contention, leading to anti-Lincoln advertising in Arkansas from the Sierra Club and MoveOn.

When I asked him about the EPA ban, Halter was direct. “No,” he said when I asked if he would joined with Murkowski’s efforts to weaken the agency as Lincoln did.

But on cap-and-trade overall, he didn’t offer a specific policy stance, instead talking at length about developing alternative energy resources to better the environment and the economy. But he said “there are significant changes that need to be made” to the House cap-and-trade bill before he could support it.

Halter ended our interview before he had a chance to elaborate on what those “significant changes” are.