The Green Papers
The Green Papers

The U.S. Senate Special Election
in Massachusetts in retrospect

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff
Wed 20 Jan 2010

So what was the Special U.S. Senate Election in Massachusetts this past Tuesday (19 January) really all about?

Some kind of "referendum" on Universal Health Care in America?

Well, in a sense, yes-- but only because both Major Parties ended up playing it that way as the Special Election itself neared: by so losing momentum as her campaign did, Coakley and the Democrats were forced into playing what was, in the main, a Republican gambit. As Brown surged in the polls, the national GOP- smelling political blood in the water- began playing up the notion that "this Special Election is all about Health Care" which then led the Democrats to make matters worse for themselves by playing the "Fear Itself" card when it came to Health Care (as in "if Coakley loses, so does Health Care").

Problem is, as regards the bigger political picture as we hurdle headlong through Midterm Election year 2010: no, it was never all about Health Care; for no Statewide election- even an unexpected, not normally scheduled, one that a Special Election, by definition, is- is ever all about just one issue.

Indeed, Scott Brown himself is not an outright opponent of the kind of state-overseen Health Care already found in the Bay State (or so he has said on the campaign trail) and, in the proverbial "blessing in disguise" within what is otherwise a terrible loss for the Democrats, Brown's election to the Senate now forces the Republicans to "put up or shut up"; as we head into the 2010 Midterm Election campaign in earnest (beginning with the first State Primaries in Illinois now less than two weeks from now [on Tuesday 2 February, can you believe it?]), the GOP will now find it more than a bit harder to engage in those obstructionist tactics that a minority Party with no leverage (since those "magic" filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats were, till now, in- however barely- Democratic Party hands) can ever fall back upon when "push comes to shove" (as in: "you actually want this legislation?-- then you pass it: you'll get no help at all from us!"-- such an attitude is now gone for the GOP: that is, if the Republicans might actually want to appeal to a wider national electorate come this November).

Instead, Senator-elect Brown, if only because of the political dynamic of the State (one generally still more liberal, politically, than the political "bell curve" of the Nation) he now will represent in the upper house of Congress, will be another moderate Republican, joining those Senate Minority Leader has called (with seemingly little love lost) "those two ladies from Maine" in augmenting what has, hitherto, been an ever-diminishing GOP faction within the Senate (what with the retirement of Jim Jeffords of Vermont and the defeat of Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island back in 2006, followed by the switch of Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to the Democrats last year) and this augmentation will now the more highlight, where not also- at least potentially- the more exacerbate, currently glossed-over divisions within the Republican Party US itself (divisions which might, in the main, portend far more as regards Federal elections in 2012 than those upcoming of 2010).

Meanwhile, Ms. Coakley's bid for the Senate itself was also clearly undercut by a number of political problems of her Party's own making, above all else a sense of entitlement on the part of most Democrats- within and without Massachusetts- as regards their holding of certain seats in both houses of Congress (keep in mind that, prior to this Special Election, not one member of Congress- in either chamber- from the Bay State was a Republican). This political hubris exhibited itself most visibly in all those machinations utilized in order to try and keep things that way: the predominantly Democratic General Court (the Commonwealth's legislature) passing legislation taking away the power of the Governor when it appeared that a then-Republican Governor (Mitt Romney, later an unsuccessful candidate for the 2008 GOP Presidential Nomination) might be able to otherwise fill a vacant Senate seat had Senator John Kerry won the Presidency back in 2004 and then repealing that very legislation in order to allow a Democratic Governor (Deval Patrick) to appoint a temporary "fill-in" (who turned out to be former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul Kirk) following the death of Senator Ted Kennedy.

The irony here is that the anger, even among many Democrats (not to mention a large swath of independent voters) in the Bay State about such political chicanery- anger which also served to fuel Brown's victory in this Special Election- needn't have ever come to the boil: for, had the legislators simply left the process of filling a vacancy in the U.S. Senate alone, it would never ever have become an issue to begin with! (Senator Kerry's seat, of course, never became vacant: he serves in the Senate still; when Ted Kennedy passed away, there would have- absent the aforementioned statutory gamesmanship- been little notice of Governor Patrick making a temporary appointment and the purely political issue of how vacancies are filled by a Governor of the same Party as the departed Senator would never have arisen [after all, this very thing has happened in other States of the American Union as the need has arisen and neither Major Party seems to at all hold a monopoly on political favoritism in such matters!])

We, of course, will never know if Martha Coakley- or any other Democrat- might have lost the Special Election in any event but, clearly, this all-too-evident clinging to a Senate seat by the predominant Party in the State via its so playing around with the Election Code did not at all help Coakley's Senatorial aspirations!

In addition, there was excessive emphasis on political "Inside Baseball" as over against the Will of the voters themselves on the part of the Democrats during this Special Election campaign (for instance: when I saw a televised soundbite of Ms. Coakley saying, in answer to a reporter's question about Brown's surging in the polls as the day of the Special Election neared, something to the effect of 'we don't pay attention to the polls, we keep our eyes on the ground game', I was left to fairly wonder if the Coakley campaign was, nonetheless, still planning on mixing in a little play action passing should they actually get to Super Bowl XLIV [;-)]). Nobody within the electorate likes to be viewed as part of some kind of "game" being, thus, "played" and, thereby, being so treated as if mere pawns on some kind of political chessboard. As a result, Scott Brown was able to more effectively portray himself as "a man of the People" in a manner Martha Coakley herself could not ever seem to approach (and this had nothing at all to do with Brown being a man and Coakley a woman!)

This whole notion of "Inside Baseball" had already- before the polls had even closed and the votes cast therein were yet to be counted- led to no little sniping between the Democratic Party US (and, by extension, the Obama White House) and the Coakley campaign (and, by extension, the Democratic Party of Massachusetts) over who was most responsible for "losing" Ted Kennedy's Senate seat: it all reminded me of what I had read, as a schoolboy, about the political argument- this one between Parties- over who had "lost" China back in the Fall of 1949 when the People's Republic was first proclaimed (answer: Chiang kai-Shek and his 'Nationalists' had actually lost [no quotation marks need here apply] China... after all, China was never ever the Americans' to "lose"!) If the Democrats are going to fairly recover from this loss (and, by implication, thereby be able to exploit the more visible divisions within the opposing Republicans, as already touched on above), they (led, above all, by the Obama Administration itself) are now going to have to put a quick, and firm, KI-bosh on such talk: failure to do so will only serve to heighten, where not also lengthen the "shelf life" of, those political questions that will otherwise swirl, not about the Bay State's Class 1 seat in the Senate chamber itself, but- rather- the White House (to here quote from my pre-Special Election Commentary). In this purely political sense, yes, President Obama's leadership (not just of the Nation as a whole, but of his own Party) is now being tested.

All in all, however- and apart from this heated political atmosphere engendered mostly by the Health Care debate here in America- just what did Scott Brown's election as United States Senator from Massachusetts really mean?

Three little words (in Latin, no less!):

status quo ante

For the political breakdown of the United States Senate will, as a result of this Special Election will now be: 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans, 1 Independent (who caucuses with the Democrats)- Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and 1 Independent Democrat- Joe Lieberman of Connecticut... precisely the very same breakdown that was itself implied by the most recent Congressional Elections back in November 2008 (factoring in the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota having been legally determined but before Senator Specter had switched Parties)...

in other words, and in the longer scheme of things: this Special Election will- come the 2010 Midterm Elections themselves this November- only serve to be looked upon, in retrospect, as but a 'blip' on the American electoral analysis screen. If the Democrats manage to hold onto control of Congress after this year's Federal elections, this recent Special Election will seem much ado about nothing; if the Republicans, on the other hand, should wrest control of at least one chamber, if not both houses, of Congress while a newly-elected Democrat yet inhabits the White House (in other words, the potential of 2010 being a repeat of 1994), what has just happened in Massachusetts won't much matter either... either way, come 3 November 2010 (the day after the General Elections), we will all be looking towards 2012 in any event.

That's why they're called election cycles!

Modified .