Saturday, February 06, 2010

Losing the Kennedy seat.

The Scott Brown election in Massachusetts is far less momentous than has been depicted.

To understand it simply requires holding onto two attributes of the Massachusetts electorate that might seem contradictory, but are not. First, that Massachusetts Democrats have a large registration edge over Republicans. Second that Massachusetts has close to if not the largest proportion of independent voters among states. Gallup achieves its ranking of Massachusetts as the third leading Democrat state—with a 34% edge over Republicans—only by allocating independent voters to the side to which they “lean.”

For some, the election results were touted as a bombshell because of the notion that this was Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat. But if that Senate seat were to be an hereditary peerage, a Kennedy would have to step up and seize it. The Massachusetts election results might have been startling if Joe Kennedy had run and lost. But he chose not to run.

Despite its reputation, Massachusetts is not the Democrat bastion of national imagination. Over the past half-century, we have seen Republicans ruling the Statehouse more than Democrats—though long-time Senate President Billy Bulger would certainly protest the notion that any Governor ruled the Statehouse during Bulger’s reign. The 28 years of John Volpe, Frank Sargent, Bill Weld and Mitt Romney outstripped the 20 combined years of Mike Dukakis, Endicott Peabody and Deval Patrick. By way of comparison, in both New Jersey and Virginia, the sites of the other recent Republican gains, these numbers are reversed, with 28 years of Democrat rule compared to 20 Republican years.

A defining characteristic of top of the ticket statewide races in Massachusetts—a state with a hard earned reputation for local politics, patronage and corruption—is that they have not been dominated by old time pols, and each of these Governors—Democrats and Republicans alike—ran and won as reform candidates campaigning as much against the entrenched party establishments as embraced by them. Statehouse operative John Sasso may have greased the wheels to assure Michael Dukakis won the nomination, but the liberal Democrat from Brookline never won the hearts of party regulars. (I will leave aside for the moment the question how a half century of reform governors could have resulted in so little reform.)

If one is to draw a lesson for national politics from Massachusetts, it is less about policy—the notion that the Massachusetts electorate was voicing its opposition to federal healthcare legislation—than about politics. And in this regard, the message from Massachusetts is not particularly different than from New Jersey or Virginia. It is that the Democrat candidates lost the good will among independent voters—the voting block that was essential to the Obama victory two years earlier—as those voters leaned the other way.

Ironically, losing in Massachusetts—and losing the 60th vote in the Senate—may have been the best thing that could happen for Barack Obama. The Massachusetts loss should mark the end of Obama’s ceding the floor to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi—whose leadership has been anathema to the change the independent voters thought they were getting in 2008—and force a realignment of the President’s strategy. While in the first few days following the Brown election, the White House appeared to be flailing about for a message—leading to real fears that the wheels were coming off the bus—its ultimate embrace of the nationally broadcast question time with Republicans may have marked a turning point.

For the first time in many years, the public was able to witness—and our elected officials were able to participate in—real discussion over real issues. This was an astonishingly simple antidote to dangerous levels of public cynicism, at a time when Washington has been reduced to rhetoric and spin, and talk show hosts wield dangerous influence over our politics.

Every hour of every day, we are pummeled by a media that makes its living stirring us up, and exacerbating the fears and resentments that are easy enough to feel without the encouragements of Sean and Rush and Michele and Ed and the rest. And time is on their side, because most of the challenges we face take time. The economy will take time. Deleveraging takes time. The real world takes time. The only think that does not take time is the Internet and cable TV. They get faster every day.

As a nation, and as a polity, having our leaders discuss matters directly is a refreshing change. After years of debating the best format for presidential debates, we have never really gotten past various versions of gotcha questions. Yet, last week, when they put the President and Congress into a room, gave them a microphone and told them to have at it, apparently they were able to do just that. And do so intelligently and with civility.

So perhaps the message from Massachusetts is just what it should be: That the electorate—led by a growing, independent center—will continue to vote for the other guy until they see something that looks like progress. And progress does not mean a filibuster-proof majority for one party, it means injecting some degree of integrity into political debate and moving away from a system simply defined by the pursuit of partisan advantage.

And that would be a good thing.

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