Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Scott Brown Won

Congratulations to Massachusetts Senator-Elect Scott Brown. He is a smart, capable politician, and I hope he will be a great Senator.

For the past few days, I have been listening to many political pundits note how it took "the perfect storm" for Senator Brown to win. His opponent, Martha Coakley, had the institutional advantage. Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1. This is Massachusetts, for heaven's sake. There hasn't been a Republican Senator here since... well I can't remember. And finally, we're talking about Senator Kennedy's seat. Why would voters elect someone who would counter the late Senator's life-long mission---universal health care?

For the final debate of the campaign, held yards away from the Kennedy Library on the campus of UMASS Boston, organizers asked David Gergen, political strategist and former aide to Presidents both Republican and Democrat, to moderate. The choice seemed strange to me. Certainly Gergen is politically smart. I have listened to his wise commentary many a night on CNN. However, Gergen is a political insider. I doubt he spent time talking to large numbers of Massachusetts voters before the debate. Like other analysts (and on many occasions, me), he gets caught up in the political horse race at the expense of commenting on the pulse of the public.

David Gergen, in my opinion, sealed the victory for Scott Brown during the debate. At the very least, the moment encapsulated why Brown won.

In asking Brown a question about the health care debate in Washington, Gergen turned to face Brown and, rather incredulously, noted "you're talking opposing health care reform as a Senator from Massachusetts... [dramatic pause and with emphasis] Ted Kennedy's seat."

"With all due respect," Brown quickly retorted. "This is not Ted Kennedy's seat, nor anyone else's seat. This is the people's seat."

I admit that many Massachusetts Democrats feel safe on this side of the "Blue Curtain." We often speak with hubris about the Democratic majority here. And while I don't really think that hubris showed in this race (except perhaps breeding complacency), that hubris certainly was portrayed by the media.

Gergen's question was in some ways offensive to all Massachusetts voters. I am a Democrat, but that doesn't blind me in the ballot box. I would imagine most other Democrats are not similarly naive to the issues and debates of any given race. The days of the party lever are over. Better than 20-percent of Democrats voted for Scott Brown this past Tuesday. I bet many of them were swayed by Gergen's hubris; they might have voted for Brown to spite the moderator and all others who feel Democrats here are naive to the challenges facing our country.

Everyone is hurting right now. Democrats understand that as much as anyone. I haven't enjoyed reading stories in Newsweek and BusinessWeek that say workers in my generation should look forward to years of less and less benefits and longer and longer hours, without wage increases that match inflation. We are frustrated.

Enter into this environment an election in which everyone-- including David Gergen-- just assumes Ted Kennedy's seat will go to a Democrat. The populist frustration boiled over, among independents and many Democrats.

Enter into this environment a candidate, Martha Coakley, who until the final weekend just didn't really seem to be working very hard.

Enter into this environment a candidate, Scott Brown, who jammed his schedule---meeting with regular voters---and whose pick-up truck symbolized the common person.

The perfect storm in Massachusetts was created by universal frustration and a reaction to the conventional wisdom---that because Massachusetts is a blue state, it doesn't matter. That this election doesn't matter. That the voters don't matter.

Well, we matter. And even though I voted for Martha Coakley, there's no doubt the nation was listening even to me this past Tuesday. Fundamentally, it's just another example of how our democracy is indeed working.

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