What does the election of a Republican to a seat long held by the Democrats in Massachusetts say about the mood of the general public and what does that hold for the future of the nation’s political direction?
It may not mean much at all in the long run and, like many dramatic moments hyper-sensitized by euphoria and overreaction, it may lead to false hope and ultimate disappointment.
Before you react to that along ideological lines, go back to November of 2008, or even a year ago today, when Barack Obama took the oath of office for President of the United States and re-phrase the question slightly.
What does election of a young, African-American Democrat to the presidency of the United States mean after eight years of an intractable and ultimately disappointing Republican White House and a Congress controlled by Republicans for most of those eight years, and does this portend a different direction for the nation’s political future?
You can see from that vantage point that, again, like many dramatic moments hyper-sensitized by euphoria and overreaction, a promise of hope can ring false and ultimately lead to disappointment.
This is a fancy way of saying don’t count the chickens before they’re hatched. That’ll be hard to do, especially for those wishful thinkers perennially addicted to counting chickens, but if drawing broad conclusions from a national election can prove to be premature –as they were in the case of Barack Obama’s election victory, doing so from a statewide election is equally haphazard, if not more so.
The default assumption should be that no consequence of an election result is impossible. Likewise, when a Democrat loses a federal race in Massachusetts, the default assumption ought to be that several factors are to blame.
There’s no question that the national environment has gotten worse for the Democrats since Barack Obama’s inauguration one year ago today. Tangible measurements such as declining presidential approval numbers (which always happens in the first year of a presidency), projection polling numbers for upcoming races in November, and retiring Democrats are easy to point to.
Clearly, the quality of the candidates and the campaign they run matters a lot, especially in open seat races. You can’t see this race entirely as a referendum on the larger national issues facing the nation given that Martha Coakley ran her campaign worse than Ken Lay ran Enron. I have a feeling there aren’t many Republicans who will follow this line of thinking. I’m sure many will push the propaganda that “even the liberal Massachusetts residents are turning against Obama.” That may stick as an effective meme for Republicans as they plot their next round of tactical political gains in the upcoming midterm elections. But for those who want this to be a referendum against Obama, as per Rasmussen on the day of the election, Obama had a 53 percent approval rating among Commonwealth constituents Bay State voters; 38 percent disapproved. And if you want a really stunning set of numbers consider this: In the month after her primary win through this past Sunday, Coakley had 19 events on the campaign trail. Scott Brown had 66. Someone was doing two-a-days; someone else was putting in half days.
If you look closely, you can see the spot where Coakley drove her campaign into the water. (AP File)
It might seem counterintuitive to have a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, but it’s no more dramatically unusual than having a Democratic Senator from Alaska or Nebraska, or a Republican Representative from New Orleans, all of which our Congress already had before last night. Federal elections are very much a part, first, of the state in which they are held. The circumstances that existed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts today and the disposition of the registered voters and the fact that it was the end of the Kennedy era are all different from what someone like Barbara Boxer will face in California. Different states, different candidates, a different composition of voters.
To extend that line of thinking, there are contingencies peculiar to Massachusetts that are unrelated to Coakley. The Commonwealth was a state wherein Democrats had twice changed the rules governing Senate succession, first in 2004 to prevent then-governor Mitt Romney from appointing a Republican to take John Kerry’s seat (should he have been elected President), and then again last year to allow Deval Patrick to appoint an interim appointee. Moreover, because it was a special election, the time frame of the campaign was dramatically compressed, making it harder to define the Republican opponent –who was little known– or to recover from any initial missteps in the campaign, of which Coakley committed several. Lastly, Massachusetts is unusual in that it already has universal health care and the Democratic health care plan would not do it much good, which allowed the Republican to promise to oppose it without looking like a typical partisan hack.
What percentage of the 31-point lead blown by Coakley in the space of a month can be attributed to these factors is hard to assess.
Partisan Democrats will snark bitterly or defensively by observing that in just one year after saying farewell to the Bush administration, Massachusetts decided to elect an affable Republican frat boy with a pickup truck who thinks government is incapable of solving any problems, proving that we’re too stupid to have a democracy.
Republican partisans will gleefully tell you the end is near for Democrats, that Democrats will fall like dominos in November. But go back to a year ago when a new president prepared to take office. Doom and gloom for Republicans was everywhere, complete with some forecasting the possible end of the Republican Party, or at best, a Republican Party relegated to minority-party status for a generation. Back then, Republicans were snarking bitterly, in some cases blaming each other. Partisan Democrats relished their opposition’s self-loathing.
But tables turn quickly and now –at least for now– the shoe is on the other foot and while the reactions are the same –they’re near identical– the actors saying them are in opposite positions. And I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see that happen.
Where the Massachusetts special election takes the nation in 2010 remains to be seen, but if nothing else, the lesson may be in how quickly the political climate can change from one year to the next, and that no one, neither the party in power nor the one hoping to regain power, should ever take anything for granted.
They will, though, and that’s going to be our fault –us voters. Personally, I don’t think we’re too stupid to have a democracy, but I do think we’re too lazy to do the work we need to do to have the kind of democracy that keeps politicians honest enough to insure they don’t take things for granted. Call me a cynic, but I won’t be surprised if what looks like change today turns into politics as usual tomorrow. Again.