Wednesday, January 20, 2010


What Can Brown Do For "O"?

President Obama wakes up today in an era of change -- though doubtless not in as good a mood as the same day one year ago when he was preparing to take the oath of office.

Initially, however, two facts should be kept in mind in light of Scott Brown's big victory over Martha Coakley -- two facts that both parties would do well to note before over-interpreting last night's events.

1) Yes, Massachusetts is a "blue" state when it comes to voting for president, but it's not as if it's impossible for Republicans to win statewide. In fact, Republicans occupied the state house as recently as, oh, yeah January 2007 -- ending a sixteen year run. Yes, they were what could be considered "liberal" Republicans -- William Weld, Paul Celluci, etc. But Scott Brown isn't that far from Mitt Romney who won in 2002 -- moderate on social issues, for example. This is all just to say that one can overstate how the difficulty of a Republican winning in Massachusetts. The right kind of candidate can win, especially when running against...

2)...a truly awful candidate named Martha Coakley. Even before the votes were in, the recriminations had been taken on the Democratic attorney general's style, strategy and such. Coakley went on a two week vacation after winning the primary -- and just tried to sit on her lead. She managed to dis Red Sox fans not once, but twice. (Calling Curt Schilling a "Yankee fan" and deriding the idea of campaigning in the cold -- outside of Fenway Park). Furthermore, at a time of rising voter anger against political "inside" baseball, Coakley aligned herself even more political insiders -- attending lobbyist-packed fundraisers and trying to depend on Democratic machine politics to pull her over the finish line. Indeed, Brown may well have won the election in the one-and-only debate when he declared, "It's not the Kennedy's seat, it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat.""

Brown identified a fact that had gone somewhat overlooked: Democrats have played fast and loose politics with U.S. seats going back to at least 1961 when JFK become president. First, a Kennedy family friend was appointed to JFK's seat because Teddy wasn't yet old enough to be a senator. As soon as he turned 30, he ran and won the seat. In 2004, Democrats passed a law preventing Republican Mitt Romney from being able to appoint a replacement for Sen. John Kerry if he won the presidency. Then, they changed that law back again last year to permit Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to replace a caretaker for the seat after Kennedy died.

Thus, Brown's statement identified a basic sense of frustration that many Bay Staters undoubtedly felt and resonated as another example of the insider-ism that Coakley reveled in, but Brown was happy to reject.

And on that point is the lesson that the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might wish to absorb. Looking back over the past year, a most disappointing aspect of the Obama presidency has become manifest. That he would be a big government liberal shouldn't have been too surprising, given his Senate voting record. That his pronouncements on bipartisanship might not have achieved reality made sense to any who had been paying attention over the last two decades. Obama might be, technically, a post-baby boomer, but the House and Senate leadership is dominated by boomers. Regardless of party, compromise is not the first word that pops out of the mouths of boomers.

But transparency is something that Obama supporters should have had a right to expect from the new president. Instead, the price of health care legislation passed in both chambers has been smarmy political deals that are the exact opposite of what candidate Obama appeared to champion. And each step has included a horrible "transparency" decision.

As the bill wound through the Senate, special Medicaid deals were cut with Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Nebraska's Ben Nelson. Then, the House-Senate conference was negotiated behind closed doors -- away from the C-SPAN cameras. Finally, in arguably the most egregious example of inside deals, Obama and congressional leaders agreed to exempt union members from the so-called "Cadillac" tax on health-care benefits.

This is why independents have seemingly abandoned Democrats by 2-1 margins in the three statewide elections held over the last two months (New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts). Yes, it's partly the issues -- recession, jobs, deficits, health-care -- but it's also the atmospherics. The Obama of 2008 promised a new start, an abandonment of the tired old arguments of the past. Not only didn't he deliver, he helped undermine this major part of his own brand. Rather than taking control and taming the Washington game, Barack Obama instead became captured by it.

Now, moreso than the Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests, Barack Obama now will have to live daily with the abandonment of independents to a Republican candidate. If he has any "hope" of saving Democrats from a truly disastrous November, he must figure out how to "change" his way of operating. It's now about more than just passing health care -- that ship might already have sailed.

Instead, it's about revitalizing what first captured the public's attention in both the 2004 Democratic national convention and in the 2008 campaign. It's not about the fact that he happens to be black (light-skinned or otherwise); it's about the promise of offering a different sort of politics. Getting a "new" policy passed using the same tawdry methods of the past -- or creating equally tawdry new ones -- just won't cut it. Who knows, perhaps Barack Obama might eventually thank Scott Brown for the wake-up call that this race might afford him -- if he chooses to recognize it.

Happy anniversary, Mr. President.

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