Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Guess What Else is Brown...

January 20, 2010 marks one year since Barack Obama took the oath of office.  It is fitting that the day before, in one of the safest states for Democrats, that a shocking and sudden repudiation of that party should elect man possibly in the mold of Mitt Romney.  But before we get to Scott Brown' let's look at why Martha Coakley lost.

1. Obama and National Democrats More Generally.

Barack Obama's first year in office has been criticized by the right and the left.  The right is guilty of using obstructionist tactics and the left bemoans that Obama really is not a Socialist.  If there is an issue out of Washington that hurt Coakley it was health care.  While the fears of socialism and spending were somewhat unfounded the bill does have some serious problems.  To that end, Democrats should seriously consider retooling the bill to the liking of a few moderate Republicans, rather than force it through.  There will be no political capital to gain by forcing it through before Brown can be certified and serious risk to passing the Senate version by the House.  

Obama's problem may have been to be too hands off with the health care issue unlike the Clintons sixteen years before him who were too hands on.  Moreover his No-Drama Obama persona has ultimately not served him well.  A cover for The Economist kind of sums up the situation depicting somebody handing Obama boxing gloves through an Oval Office window.  Obama needs to be more aggressive against Republicans, anti-tax loonies, and accusations of socialism.  Part of that could be inviting Republicans back to the table to not just play the game of negotiation with them, but demand that consensus happens.  He is not going to win anything by trying to ride a tide of post-partisanism.  There is no such thing.  If voters were responding to tax and spend habits they were probably associating Capital Hill with Beacon Hill financial recklessness.  Chastened, Democrats pulled back on health care Wednesday afternoon and promised less sweeping legislation with the implication that final action will await Brown's arrival.

2. Beacon Hill Democrats

One Brown ad depicted Coakley with unpopular Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick and indicted and resigned Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi.  A state Senator was videotaped stuffing her bra with cash and another was accused of molesting woman and yet another got into an accident and fled the scene.  He was later arrested for violating his home confinement sentence by failing a breathalyzer.  Taxes were raised across the board and on food and liquor.  In the midst of a recession not only did taxes go up, but they went up on escapism: drinking, dining out, and satellite television.  Indeed it could be argued that their tax and spend issues have set up Democrats and Coakley in particular for retribution. Some voters certainly did not consider that Coakley really did not have a role in this, but blamed her anyway.  However, the truth is that voters were fed up with Beacon Hill's ways.  Years of corruption, spending on questionably effective social policies, and rotting infrastructure  have taken their toll.  Voting in Brown will do nothing to correct this.  In fact the question now is whether voter will make similar decisions come November and repudiate the demons in local government that bedevil average Bay Staters.  In the past they voted in Republican governors to counteract this, but after Romney it seemed that voters wanted to take a different tack.  Romney turned too far to the right and beat a path out of town for a failed  run for the White House.  Voters in Massachusetts felt used and elected Deval Patrick instead of Romney's Lt. Governor Kerry Healey.  

Perhaps the greatest irony is that this situation is in large part Beacon Hill Democrats' fault.  Whether coaxed by Ted Kennedy or not (reports vary), the state Dems set up this absurd midyear election system to preserve presidential hopeful John Kerry's Senate seat from a Republican appointment by Mitt Romney.  Although gubernatorial Senate appointments had been problematic in 2008, calling for reform of the process, the actions taken to preserve a Democratic Senate seat for obviously political reason was unnecessary.  The volume of egg on the face of state lawmakers only increased when they removed the very injunction against any gubernatorial appointment pending the election whenever scheduled.  That blatant political posturing alone might have invited a Democratic loss of the Kennedy seat.  Indeed, it proved that that seat, however hallowed by Kennedy lore, did not singularly belong to Democrats.

3. Coakley and her Campaign

Coakley's biggest sin was one of hubris.  She did not campaign much until after the first of the year when trouble started.  Voters do not like being taken for granted and statewide elections are more likely to vary than any one district race for the State House.  In other words, we only need to remember than this state is not appreciably different demographically than it was when Mitt Romney won the governor's race in 2002.  Additionally, there existed a criticism of Coakley that dated back to her duel with Capuano that she was not as personable and human as the Somerville Congressman.  Her ads did not portray a candidate with whom an out of work parent or small businessman could relate.  The rank and file were turned away by goofy mistakes like calling former Red Sox former pitcher Curt Shilling a Yankee fan.  The media mentioned, perhaps overemphasized, the machine than attempted to get the vote out for her, another offense to voters.  A CNN report also detailed how Brown's campaign cornered the social networking market before Coakley did.  It is probably not so much that they cornered it, but Coakley's camp did not really utilize it.  Just looking at Facebook one could see an obvious preference of Brown over Coakley, a factor that is odd, given that tech-savvy voters tend to lean left.  More often than that, disaffected voices, such as conservatives in Massachusetts or liberals during the Bush years on a national level, tend to resort to blogs and social media.  Had Coakley's campaign developed a healthy digital response to Brown, she might have slowed his advance.  In short, she ran yesterday's campaign in today's world and paid the price for it.  However, she remains undaunted a formidable figure.  She announced her re-election campaign for Attorney General, today, a position for which many people still respect her.

4. Die-hard Liberal Democrats

They did not show up to vote for Coakley in the same numbers that they usually do.  Between pessimism and anger at Coakley's insufficiently liberal credentials, the left of the party simply did not vote.  Sadly, the left is often a thorn in the side of Democrats more than the right is to Republicans.  The right more or less hijacked the party, whereas the left gets into fights with the more moderate arm of the Democratic party often to the electoral disaster of the entire party.  They also have a role in the debacle in Washington, demanding left turns here and there that sometimes needlessly provoke the right.  Principle is a wonderful thing, but the left sometimes does not live in the same world as the rest of us.  They have valid gripes about being ignored, but often the way they present themselves comes across as arrogant and that invariably damns their agenda as well.

5. Other Factors

Sadly Massachusetts remains an Old Boy's Club in a lot of ways.  The fact that Sen. President Terese Murray's actions seem colored by a fears she may appear too ambitious and as the worse caricature of a strong woman is evidence of this.  Precious few woman have been elected to federal office and this not a coincidence.  Certainly some women office-seekers like Kerry Healey and Shannon O'Brien simply were not all that great of candidates, but sadly that alone does not explain it.

Sometimes this vitriol against any insufficiently feminine women candidates can be expressed by one Brown supporter overheard on election night.  This young woman made no secret of her opinions cursing out numerous people and Democrats including the president.  She made no effort to keep her volume down, disturbing guests, and once the results were announced, continued to make comments that portrayed her as a bad winner.  While up to that point, her comments were just rude, they took a turn for the ignorant and bigoted when she referred to Martha Coakley, more than once, as a dyke.  For the record Martha Coakley is married to a man, but has no children.  This young woman may or may not have known this, but to use such a harsh and hurtful term (like certain racial epithets, dyke is thought to only be used positively when said by other lesbians) exposes an anti-feminist and even misogynist view held by a small, but real group of people, including woman.

The final factor is fear.  People are afraid of what is going to happen.  An improving economy may or may not be unfolding, but if it is, the recovery exists more theoretically or on paper than in dimensions people can actually see.  Although Obama and Democrats have been given woefully insufficient time by both opponents and the media to correct the situation, Americans, Massachusetts residents included, demand instant gratification.  Americans taken in by the hope and optimism of the Obama Presidency might have been disappointed that all of life's problems were not solved with hours of Obama's inauguration.

So what is a president to do?  Well, believe it or not having an approval rating of 51% is not a bad thing by any measure.  Presidents can have lower ratings later in the election calendar and still win another  term and win/maintain Congressional majorities.  Strange as it may sound, taking a step back on health care, which had actually come to block Obama's other legislative priorities, may be a blessing in disguise.  While health care dominated the headlines and Congress's day planner, little else was getting done.  Obama still has plans for the environment, education, and the economy he wants to see enacted.  While his most vicious opponents may hate these plans, too, national ire is boiling over mostly because of the cost and scale of health care reform.  Still, whatever the health care reform turns out to be, it has to be substantive.  It cannot be another window dressing bill that will mean nothing a year or two from now.

Frankly the sorriest person in the Obama administration might be Jon Favreau, the president's head speechwriter.  The 28 year-old Massachusetts native has some serious work cut out for him as the State of the Union approaches.  The State of the Union is an arduous task even in good times for a president and this flip-flop in Massachusetts very well have upended any plans being laid out for the speech.  Although as early as a week or two ago news reached the president that Coakley's loss was probable, it was not assured until the vote came in.  Favreau, his staff, and the wider communications very probably had or will have only a few days to revise or completely redo entire sections of the speech that took months to write.

Back in Massachusetts meanwhile, we have a new Senator-elect.  Scott Brown's campaign was very showy and relied heavily on an attempt to connect to voters on an emotional level.  Strangely Coakley did that during the primary talking about growing up in North Adams in an very effective at times fluffy commercial.  Stranger still is that ad's absence during the general.  Anyway, Brown talked about his truck (which he will be able to replace when his salary triples once in Washington) and its 200,000+ miles.  His retort to Coakley's concerns about women's health no doubt touched other men in estrogen-rich households.

In the end he simply ran a better campaign than Coakley.  Republicans were thrilled to have a viable candidate and showed up to vote.  Certainly he got the support of independents sick of Beacon Hill's antics and to a lesser extent Capital Hill's.  Of these they probably constituted a large pool of those seeking  to blame a Democrat, any Democrat, for the sins of state lawmakers.  Finally, there were a few Democrats, who for whatever reason, sided with Brown.  However, these folks might be more likely to be constructions than an actually sizeable group.  In other words, people that were set up to appear as Democrats, but may never have been registered as one in their lives or only were at one time.  Every election has defectors, but for this state, if you are a registered Democrat, its doubtful you stray too far.

Finally, there was a group of people who defy categorization in any of the above regardless of what they are registered as.  Massachusetts has more than its share of nuts, zealots, bigots, and ignoramuses.  These folks may not go so far as to call Obama the "n" word in public, but they probably use it in private.  However, as the young woman fascist mentioned above exemplifies, they have no problems freely using dyke indiscriminately.  Luckily this poor fool (the most appropriate word is not meant for intelligent banter and would effectively bring one down to her level) is of a small minority.  However, there exists a contingent here and across the country and the planet fueled by ignorance and its twin spawn anger and hate.  These folks very probably voted overwhelming for the straight, white, Republican, man for Senate and their support was crucial.  In his defense, Brown probably never had a moment (at least publicly) like Herbert Hoover in 1928 or John McCain in 2008 supposedly had when confronted with bigotry directly.  In both those circumstance, a voter said to each man they were not voting for both men's opponents, Al Smith and Barack Obama  because they were Catholic and black respectively.  Reputedly both men said effectively that they did not want that person's vote.  Conveniently, no such confrontation also meant Brown never had to dismiss it, either.  However, unless you have an outright "beat the bitch" moment, if you address it you give attention to a view that should be marginalized into obscurity, not advertised.

Brown will actually have his work cut out for him.  Although some sources say he got minimal support from the national party, those reports must be looking at an average amount spent over the course of the campaign or in absolute terms.  The GOP and its proxies must have come swinging into town with millions, otherwise that flurry of Brown ads that cluttered the airwaves could never have been.  The question will be whether Brown will suckle at the teat of the national party or be a more centrist Republican that is common to New England states.

There exists great peril that Brown will undergo a Romneyfication.  Remember our former governor was elected as a centrist, but swung right once he set his eyes on a higher prize.  Brown may have done that already by veering right as a Senate candidate.  In the Massachusetts Senate he supported things like Emissions Cap & Trade, which he now opposes.  We'll give him Health Care because he claimed that it could hurt Massachusetts own health care system and Veterans benefits.  Plus, the proposed federal law was not a great bill.  However, he seems suspiciously unsympathetic entirely to gay issues despite the fact that the leader of his party in the Massachusetts Senate is openly gay.  And he appears to oppose additional financial regulation and fines to pay for the bailout . This despite the fact that financial institutions' misbehavior created the environment, in part, in which a Republican could win Ted Kennedy's old seat.  Additionally, his advisers include figures like Eric Fehrnstrom, a noted Mitt Romney's gubernatorial and presidential campaign adviser and spokesman.

Should Brown remain unmoved on these issues and surround himself with GOP party insiders from within and without Massachusetts, he will quickly fall into obscurity and lose any hope of reelection.  Brown also operates on a shorter timetable than most Senator's.  Kennedy's term would have expired in 2013, which means Brown will be up for reelection in 2012, the year that Obama would run for reelection.  Anger aside, no Republican stands out  right now with enough appeal to take Massachusetts away from Obama and so Brown would have his work cut out for him even if  he does moderate his stance on some issues.  If he stays to the right, he will be a  less than one-term Senator.

In the final analysis, although Brown's victory has shocked the nation and the Democratic party, it has also done some good.  The event has encouraged Democrats to reassess their situation and a crisis is sometimes the best way to bring about, yes, change.  The energy among Republicans, if not conservatives, may be enough to oust some of the more useless members of the legislature.  If nothing else, the Bay State's Dems will be compelled to engage in a little bit of soul-searching and maybe do some housecleaning on its own.  Most encouraging of all, however--no matter the winner--democracy is alive in Massachusetts after all.

*All photos except Beacon Hill photos from wikipedia/wikimedia commons.

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