The last few weeks of the 2009-2010 Massachusetts US Senate campaign have not amounted to an October surprise in November, but they have been fodder for some edutainment. Yes, edutainment.
People have berated long campaigns, but this one has given the electorate of Massachusetts an opportunity to see into the candidates, notably the Democratic primary's frontrunners. This is all the more important since, the winner of the Democratic primary will likely be the winner of the general election in January.
Most of this extra curricular nonsense came about as the US House of Representatives, by a thin margin, passed its version of health care reform. That bill included a provision that would prohibit any insurance policy either paid for or subsidized by the government from covering an abortion, excluding cases of rape, incest, or threat to mother's life. That provision was added to encourage some centrists and pro-life Democrats (and Republicans) to vote for the bill. Among those who voted for it was Representative Mike Capuano, candidate for US Senate in Massachusetts. For the record, the Massachusetts Health Reform of 2006 does cover abortions. Not all that surprising, frankly.
The prohibitive favorite for the open Senate seat from Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Coakley, was sailing her way to victory until the House passed its version of Health Care Reform. She announced, following its passage, that she would have voted against the bill (or at least final passage thereof), because it would essentially deny woman their right to abortion. It appears that Coakley perceives the right to choose as a right the government is not simply prohibited from limiting, but also one it should facilitate.
For the record, the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which prohibits federal efforts to expand health care from paying for abortions and named after Rep. Bart Stupak (MI-D) and Joseph Pitts (PA-R), may duplicate the existing law a.k.a. the Hyde amendment, which more generally prohibits federal funding for abortion. There is a concern among many, including Stupak, a notable pro-life Democrat, that the existing law may not prevent government funding of abortions under health care reform.
That being said, there appears to be a sincere concern among pro-choice politicians, who otherwise oppose federal funding of abortions (or simply accept it), that the Stupak-Pitts amendment would prohibit any insurance plan from paying for abortions or otherwise require a separate supplemental rider that would cover abortions. In other words, a clarification of health care reform vis-à-vis the Hyde amendment might be appropriate, but the Stupak-Pitts amendment is too expansive.
Following Coakley's announcement that she would not vote for the bill at all with that provision, Rep. Capuano pounced on her as unfit to work within the "lets make a deal" atmosphere of Washington. An attitude the late Senator Kennedy certainly expressed. However, after Capuano sensed (incorrectly one might argue) the wind was blowing Coakley's way and she attacked him for voting for the bill, Capuano asserted his liberal and progressive credentials saying he only voted for the bill to keep it alive. Coakley, too, wavered, but not as incoherently.
For the record, Stephen Pagliuca and Alan Khazei expressed that voting for health care reform overall was the paramount concern.
Neither Coakley or Capuano effectively articulated their concern, if it was based more on woman losing any access to abortion coverage in their insurance than restricting federal abortion funding entirely. Explaining and noting the difference between federal funding for abortion and restricting a woman options would have been very helpful. Still, health care reform is more important than this issue. Moreover, although we can never know, it may very well be the kind of compromise Ted Kennedy might have taken. Forty-seven million uninsured Americans compared the handful of woman who want abortion (remember rape, incest, and threat to mother's life are not prohibited) should be an easy choice. Ted Kennedy's own son and namesake said his father felt "the perfect was the enemy of the good."
Capuano in the long-term may have sustained more damage from this. Although his stock did rise throughout this ordeal it did seriously challenge Coakley's edge. If anything, it might have grabbed some support from Pagliuca and Khazei by showing he had experience. However, as stated before, Capuano has been the least oblique in his attempts to present himself as the new Ted Kennedy. However, whoever Massachusetts' next Senator will be will not have Kennedy's charisma or his seniority. After Capuano started flip-flopping, however, he undercut whatever he just gained. It began to look like pandering.
Coakley, too, took a hit, but one that made more friends than she lost. First of all, NARAL-Pro Choice and other like groups practically made a wire transfer after this event. Although she, too, left a bad taste in the mouth of abortion funding opponents, she quickly sought to mend fences albeit on a different front...out West.
Coakley began airing ads that touting her Western Massachusetts connections (Coakley grew up in North Adams). These ads, which accompanied a swing through the 413, were part of an effort to expand support among the state's western regions--support none of the candidates really have as their careers all tie back to Boston. Coakley already had an upper hand having run for statewide office before. However, having exposed herself to ridicule from her opponents she needed to shore up whatever support she could. However, these wholesome "back-to-my-roots" commercials also counteract whatever images pro-lifers could conjure of a Coakley who would ready perform abortions on the Capitol Steps within the gaze of Lincoln several miles across the Mall.
Both candidates should be censured for either their direct or implicit absolutism on the subject of abortion. At best this was a communications failure for both candidates, but at worst it could represent a more extreme position on the abortion debate than even Massachusetts can stomach. More likely it was somewhere in the middle, but one that neglects the progress and the struggles to bring health care reform any kind of health care reform into existence. Love it or hate it, it is the most comprehensive and feasible plan to come out of Washington in recent memory and inaction is unacceptable. Additionally, both Coakley and Capuano have been politicians for many years and they should know that it is petty squabbles like this that have derailed exceptionally important legislation in the past.