“Elections Matter!” What happened in Massachusetts?


Last night I turned the television off after CNN called the special Senate election for the Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley, with Brown getting 52% of the vote to Coakley’s 47%.

This morning I am trying to get my head around what happened. In this traditionally bluest of blue states Republicans are not supposed to be elected senator. The last Republican United States senator from Massachusetts was Edward Brooke, who left the senate in 1979. But Brooke was unlike any Republican you will find today. He was a moderate Republican, who co-authored the 1968 Fair Housing Act. He was staunchly bi-partisan and was the first Republican senator to ask for President Richard Nixon’s resignation after the post-Watergate “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Brooke was also the first African-American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, and the only African-American in the Senate in the Twentieth Century until Carol Mosely Braun was elected in 1993. To younger Americans living in the Obama era, it is hard to conceive of the symbolic significance of Brooke’s active presence in the Senate in those days, and Massachusetts’ voters re-elected him by 62% to 34% in 1972, and he served until 1979.

We haven’t had a Republican senator since. My grown children haven’t known one in their lifetimes. But they have one now, Scott Brown, who is not a moderate, but a pro-life, anti-tax, anti-immigration politician who opposes health care reform among other things. He fills the seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy, and he gets two years before he has to run for re-election. That’s right, Ted Kennedy, the “Lion of the Senate,” who championed health care reform his entire career, is now replaced by someone who has vowed to vote against the current bill. His election deprives the Democrats of their 60 votes in the Senate that preclude a filibuster.

So what happened? There is already a lot of finger pointing, but there is plenty of blame to go around the Democratic Party.  And Brown gets credit for running an energetic campaign. Coakley had a nearly 30% lead in an early poll, and as late as last week was still predicted to have a double-digit lead.

Here’s my take on it. First of all, as President Obama’s political guru, David Axelrod, said last night on the eve of the defeat, “Elections matter.” That’s why we have them, just like why we play the games to see who wins rather than relying on the predictions.

There was a perception by many that Martha Coakley and the Democrats were arrogant and entitled. In one of the debates Coakly said something about Kennedy’s seat and Brown retorted, “It is not Kennedy’s seat, it’s the people’s seat.” That moment crystallized a populist resentment toward the establishment. As things were sinking fast Coakley brought in Presidents Clinton and Obama to campaign. That may only have reinforced the view that the elites were behind her. Brown, on the other hand, has popular sports figures like Doug Flutie (of the Miami miracle pass), and Curt Schilling, the Boston Red Sox pitcher (of “bloody sock” fame.) To me, nothing sums up this election more than that contrast, the smart attorney general supported by two Presidents versus the truck-driving state senator supported by sports icons.

So Brown tapped into class resentments against the powers that be in this scary economic time. Ironic that many of those who voted for Brown were suburbanites, a usually well-off and typically liberal crowd, but who now seem to fear that the American Dream may be slipping from their grasp. Many have lost jobs, or fear they will. Some have lost their homes or their mortgages are now bigger than the worth of their home. These concerns are real and some of the anger about these things seems to have accrued to the President and those in office.

Others have interpreted the vote as a referendum on the Health Care Bill, but that is too simplistic. For one thing, Massachusetts has a near universal health care system already. What the vote more likely signals is a fear of big government spending, as people watch dizzying deficits being piled up in Washington. It is, of course, unfair to hang that on President Obama, since it was actually George W. Bush and Henry Paulson who launched the early big bailouts to keep the whole financial system from crashing in the fall of 2008, but many people have short memories.

And on the other side many liberal Democrats think the health care bill is so compromised that it is not worth passing, especially with the elimination of the public option. So did they stay away from the polls yesterday? If they did it is yet another example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

So the perfect storm that nobody predicted took place. Coakley ran a safe and lackluster campaign designed not to lose. Brown ran to win and captured something that is in the air. I happen to think that a good deal of what is in the air is pretty ugly. I don’t want to hang this on Scott Brown.  I wish him well, and hope he can appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

But to do so he will need to distance himself from some of the rhetoric of his supporters, especially the hate-mongers on the airways. Some of what I have seen in on-line and TV discussions, and heard on the radio, is truly scary. Some of it, sad to say, is clearly sexist and racist. There is a strong anti-immigrant impulse along with a derisive attitude toward the poor and disadvantaged. We have seen this before in American history when economic times were tough, but it doesn’t bode well for us, especially coming so soon after Barack Obama’s large-hearted campaign rhetoric and historic electoral victory that inspired so many people, many of them young and voting for the first time. It was just a year ago, but things move quickly in politics, and in Massachusetts yesterday the audacity of hope lost out to the resentment of fear.

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