The recent special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts has produced more quotes than a bag of Valentine candies. Yet many of us remain as confused as ever.
Why did Massachusetts voters choose as they did? Why did people who gave President Obama a 26-point victory in their state in 2008 turn around and defeat his party’s candidate by 5 points a scant 15 months later? It’s a significant turnaround. But significant of what?
Observers with a strong sense of their ability to read such dramas have been quick to declare what the Massachusetts vote was not. ‘”It was not a referendum on Barack Obama, who in every poll remains one of the most popular politicians in America,” declared Frank Rich, himself a former drama critic, in The New York Times. “It was not a rejection of universal health care,” Rich went on, citing the hot-button issue now challenging the Obama administration. And “it was not a harbinger of a resurgent G.O.P., whose numbers remain” in a familiar bathroom appliance.
OK, let’s say we accept all that. But if the vote was none of those things, what was it? It was, Rich concludes, “a dire omen for this White House,” an omen that can be pretty much summed up in one word – jobs.
That omen is visible and familiar across Massachusetts’ borders, north to Maine and south and west to every state in the union. Voters, whatever their political affiliation, are jittery about where we are headed from here. So far, “recovery” seems primarily reserved to the boys with big boxes of candy in the financial markets. But what’s ahead for ordinary folk with homemade paper Valentines in the rest of the class? They see companies molting jobs in their own towns and cities – jobs that mean prosperity, relocation or a frightening spectre of poverty for them.
That omen leaves both major parties facing the same challenge. First, come up with sound proposals to pull our economy up by its galoshes and reset patterns that instill reliability in local jobs. Second, mount campaigns and candidates who are able to energize those proposals for grassroots voters and build effective political support behind them. In other words, promote strong ways to revive America’s economic base and elect people who can get it done.
Democrats lost on both fronts in the Massachusetts contest. Watching the race between Democratic State Attorney General Martha Coakley and Republican State Sen. Scott Brown, it became obvious Coakley was outclassed in a way that would matter greatly on Jan. 19. In effect, she was a government functionary, a stern-faced woman who knew how to do a job and did it, matched against a Republican ghost of John F. Kennedy in a pickup truck.
Polls confirmed the gap. As the election drew near, Coakley continued to slump and Brown continued to rise.
One reason Coakley lost, I’m convinced, has to do with a major miscalculation on the Democratic side. Bay State Democrats bought into their own myth. For years, press accounts and television reports have spoken of “Ted Kennedy’s seat” in the U.S. Senate. Over time the label took on a life of its own. “Ted Kennedy’s seat” became part of the Camelot heritage. But it was never history in any true sense of the word.
For more than 40 years, Kennedy held that Senate seat for the people of Massachusetts. The seat belonged to them. It was theirs to bestow or withhold. They demonstrated that when they bestowed it on Brown. And Massachusetts Democrats were left with a history lesson instead of a safe Democratic seat for the next three years.
Maine’s two U.S. senators, both women, both Republicans and both with heavy doses of wariness built into their political DNA, have become adept at developing proposals in Congress and promoting them with an aura of moderation to Maine voters. They are astute politicians not apt to be easily diverted by labels and slogans. And for that Maine probably can be grateful.
So, what can we say with confidence did happen in Massachusetts last month?
The answer I find most heartfelt comes from former Republican presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “It is not the end of something so much as the beginning of something,” Noonan declared. “Ted Kennedy took his era with him. But what has begun is something new and potentially promising.”
It’s a “something” that keeps the political pot boiling and treats candidates – hopefully, candidates of both parties – like public servants chosen to conduct the people’s business. “They hire you and fire you, nothing personal,” Noonan said. “Family connection, personal charm, old traditions, fealty to party, all are nice and have their place, but right now we are immersed in crisis and we vote on policies that affect our lives.”
Isn’t that what our Founding Fathers had in mind?