Doug Thompson: Pryor delivers candor

Representatives should represent, Pryor says in Fayetteville

Posted: October 28, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Former Sen. Mark Pryor told blunt truths at the Northwest Arkansas Political Animals Club a week ago Friday. The gist came out in the news story. There was more.

"The Democrats have not given people something to vote for, not candidates or a set of policies," Pryor said from the podium at Mermaids, a seafood restaurant in Fayetteville, one of the last Democratic strongholds in Arkansas. Pryor was the last Democrat left before the GOP tide finally rolled over the state.

I imagined supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders would take exception to Pryor's remark. Then Pryor reminded his audience that Sanders is not a Democrat. "I know Sen. Sanders and I like him," but he is running for re-election again as an independent, Pryor said.

A party might, indeed, be in trouble when the most recognized office-holder affiliated with it will not even join.

Many of Pryor's remarks look harsh in black and white. The talk was not harsh in person. Pryor was not embittered by his loss to Sen. Tom Cotton in 2014, although he regrets it. His talk was calm and easygoing, using the tone of someone liberated from having to run for office. He spent most of his time Friday answering questions from the audience. He gave candor, not a scolding. Pryor lives in North Little Rock now, so he was not giving the view from his lobbying firm's office near the U.S. Capitol.

I covered many of Pryor's speeches when he first ran for Senate and during his terms in office. I was a Northwest Arkansas political reporter throughout his U.S. Senate career. No speech I ever heard him give was as good as this one.

"Everything in politics today would seem to be viewed through the prism of Donald Trump," Pryor said of the president. That is understandable, the former senator said: "The rise of Donald Trump is the most amazing political story of my lifetime."

"I'd say the president has been very successful at keeping everyone off balance, not allowing the Democrats or the traditional Republicans an opening," Pryor said. That oblique compliment was the closest Pryor came to criticism of Trump. He wants the president to succeed because he wants the country he leads to succeed, Pryor said. Democrats have to be for something, not just against Trump, he said.

The former senator's direct criticism went to institutions such as the major political parties, Congress and the people running them. "We don't have very many people committed to governing the country and doing what needs to be done," he said. This severe problem not only preceded Trump's election. It explains it, according to Pryor.

"People are frustrated with government because they feel nobody in it listens to them. Guess what? Nobody is listening to them," he said.

"He clearly touched that nerve," Pryor said of Trump. "All over this country there are towns with a plant that closed. The people in that town blame Mexico or China, and in a lot of cases that is true."

Pryor famously kept the plaque of his father and predecessor, former Sen. David Pryor, on his Senate office desk: "Arkansas comes first." Democrats and Republicans used to be willing to acknowledge and tolerate regional differences and interests. That is no longer true, he said. Any member of Congress who strays from his party's line runs "the very strong risk of getting a primary opponent better funded than you are." He called the current system of campaign finance "very corrupt."

No dogma is consistent with the American system of governing, he said. "Congress is there to build consensus," Pryor said. "It forces people to come together." The system cannot work when elections send people to Congress who are too inflexible to reach a consensus, much less defer to one, he said.

The presidential primary system promotes this unhealthy rigidity, Pryor said. "Iowa and New Hampshire have a stranglehold on our national politics, and those two states don't look anything like America," he said.

But what about young voters attracted by a liberal ideology, someone asked. They cannot deliver the votes needed to win back seats in Congress, Pryor replied. Only allowing district and state representatives to actually represent their districts and states will do that, he said.

The clearest criticism I can make of Pryor's view is that he lost. The answer to that, though, could be what has happened since. The party that won Senate control, in part by ousting Pryor, cannot do anything with it.

Commentary on 10/28/2017