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Mar 9, 2010 7:12 am

What does the Massachusetts election mean?

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Food for Thought

Washington Post

State Sen. Scott Brown won a remarkable upset victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) tonight in a Massachusetts Senate special election, a victory likely to spawn broad-ranging political and policy consequences heading into the midterm elections.

"Tonight the independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken," Brown said to raucuous cheers at his victory rally.

Brown's victory is the first for Republicans at the Senate level for Republican in Massachusetts since 1972 and he becomes the lone GOPer in the 12-person federal delegation from the Bay State....

Brown will give Republicans a 41st seat in the Senate, robbing Democrats of the filibuster-proof majority the party had used to pass President Obama's health care plan late last year. In the immediate lead-up to tonight's vote, Democrats -- including the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) -- insisted that the party would move forward on health care but it is unclear whether that bravado will carry over in the coming days as the party seeks to deal with Coakley's stunning upset....

"Democrats will try to play this race off as an isolated incident, but the recent spate of polling in swing districts across the country proves that Massachusetts isn't the exception of the 2010 election cycle, its the rule," said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Ken Spain."Any Democrat who voted for the health care bill now knows how big of an albatross they will have hanging around their necks."

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/28/2010

David Brooks is the NYT's token conservative, which fixes him somewhere to the left of Francois Mitterand... (after his Vichy years). To put it anyother way, compared to David Brooks, Bill Safire was Attila the Hun.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/28/2010

I think you are giving the Bay State electorate credit for far too much sophistication. They didn't like the Christmas bomber getting Miranda rights. They resisted socialized medicine, especially at the expense of grandma's Medicare Advantage program, and also pop's union package. The spectre of take-a-number medicine in general, as practiced in places like Canada and the U.K., was summarily rejected. They didn't like the president's renege on the promise of C-SPAN and transparancy, either. In fact, this was a referendum on Obama, and he lost. The polls showing a majority now happy with him are probably caused by respondents fearing to be considered racists. It is clear Barack Obama could not be elected president as attitudes stand today.

Michael Davis - 1/27/2010

Yeah, she was an awful candidate, but you sound mad that she lost??
I hope you and Democrats keep deluding yourselves on the real reasons why Brown won, and why this November is going to be a bloodbath = Obama's agenda!!

Arnold A Offner - 1/25/2010

The MA results do NOT mean what most pundits think. Martha Coakley ran a horrific non-campaign, but she still "won" in most Democratic realms, e.g. Boston/Cambridge and nearby western suburbs; Springfield/Worcester, Northampton and Amherst and the les populated Berkshires.

Her margins, though, were too small to carry her over Brown's winning the small towns accross MA. Still, she lost by only 100,000 votes out of over 2,000,000 cast in an election with relatively low turnout, or way less than in a regular year election

A strong Democratic candidate would get a higher turnout and higher margins of victory in Democraic regions and would win. In short, Scott Brown is senator for two years; a good Democratic candidate will defeat him in 2012!

Arnold Offner, Newton, MA

MK - 1/24/2010

Some Presidents end up governing during unusually tumultuous times and being scapegoated. Barack Obama is like Richard Nixon in that sense. I don’t know if you think Nixon deserved all the vituperation flung at him (I don’t, any more than I believe Obama does). But not all the vituperation flung at Presidents is reality based, as Larison notes. He writes in his American Conservative article that some of it is therapy for that subset of voters who cannot otherwise reconcile that their guy didn’t win. Obama is different from Nixon. I think his self-possession and ability to stay calm and cool comes from his being bi-racial, from his having worked to integrate that within his own self. Most of us, who’ve lived comfortably privileged lives as the majority and haven’t been required to dig hard and deep and reflect on what makes us who we are, aren’t like that.

The Presidency requires special reserves of courage of a type which most of us might not be able to draw on. Bush had it, so does Obama. Consider the rhetoric used by opponents against modern day Presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama. Not all voters are bad losers—most Americans accept that in a democratic nation, people vote in one party at times and the other party at other times. That’s how self government works and that’s the premise under which all our Presidents operate. But what if the biggest complainers –the really sore losers -- acted with immaturity in the workplace?

Here’s the hypothetical I use. What if John, Jennifer, Tom, Ron, and Linda competed for an executive position in a company or government agency which faces difficult challenges in its operations? The boss, Dave, chooses John. In most offices, that would be the end of it. People would watch to see how John does, maybe gossip a little in the hallway, but most would come to accept that he won out. But what if the situation with his selection were handled the way it is in the political world?

What if, from the moment John settled into his new position, Tom began an overt campaign to undermine him. Dave, the boss, would hear Tom muttering, “John doesn’t have the competence to do this job.” That escalates to, “John’s business practices are deliberately designed to drive this company into bankruptcy.” And “John’s proposal will backfire and result in the needless firing of hundreds of people. He’s looking to make people suffer deliberately because he secretly hates the company.” At first, John thinks Dave will recognize this as sour grapes, that most listeners will take the charges with a grain of salt and keep them in perspective. Sure, they’ll watch how he does his job but there’s nothing to worry about there. If he tries his best, turns around the struggling business, he’ll be ok. But over time, the sniping and hyperbole start to wear him down and he has to decide whether to answer back forcefully. Most of us don’t have to go through that type of constant verbal sniper fire on the job. Some rivalries, sure. But not a constant barrage aimed at destroying the person who won out.

Do you think most of us have it within us to to draw on the fortitude our Presidents, include the current one, have? Would most of us be able to stay cool and mission oriented? The presidency really is very, very different and requires very differing skillsets from anything most of us face and use as we plod through life.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/24/2010

Obama appears to be a fascist, actually. He certainly does not believe in self-government.

I get tired when hearing suggestions that it is necessary to re-engineer large swaths of the population. Also canards about how the next generation will not live better or as well as we have. They were saying that about my generation when I was a kid, and it's proven manifestly untrue.

When you start to worry about the theories of such as David Brooks, look at the Mexican border, and comfort yourself that we remain the only nation on earth which millions and millions are trying to enter illegally. We must be doing something right. Forget doomsday scenarios; they do not happen here, or rather will not, so long as markets, private property, capitalism and freedom are preserved. (Thank God and Bush for the current Supreme Court majority).

MK - 1/23/2010

I see my attempt to draw people out on discussing David Brook’s interesting call for a new morality didn’t work out. Oh well, at least I tried. After I posted his thoughts on economic morality on the evening of January 21, I read this by Daniel Larison on The American Conservative site. He states that “Whatever else the last year has shown us, it has not shown us that the administration and the Democratic Party is currently in thrall to the left.” Then he gives his take on why people nevertheless say that it is:

“The impulse to label an opponent as an extremist is a common and tempting one. It is a very easy thing to do, provided that you are not concerned with accuracy or persuading undecided and unaffiliated people that you are right. These labels are not descriptive. They are a way to express the extent of one’s discontent and disaffection with the other side in a debate. When some Republican says that Obama and his party have been governing from ‘the left,’ he might even believe it inasmuch as Obama and his party are to his left politically, but what he really means is that he strongly disapproves of how Obama and his party have been governing. He may or may not have a coherent reason for this disapproval, but declaring it to be leftist or radical leftist conveys the depth of his displeasure. That is, it is not analysis of political reality. It is therapy for the person making the statement.

The same thing goes for progressives who were trying to find words to express how outraged they were by Bush. Inevitably, many resorted to using labels such as theocrat, extreme right, radical right and the like. These did not correctly describe the content of Bush’s politics, but they did express the critics’ feelings of disgust and loathing for Bush’s politics. That doesn’t mean they weren’t right to be disgusted and outraged, but the words they used to express these sentiments typically had no relationship to the substance of what Bush was actually doing. Likewise, there could be merit in objecting to Obama’s agenda, but if critics begin by using the wrong definitions and descriptions they will not be critiquing an agenda that really exists, but it will instead be a fantastical one that they have imagined. Where this creates problems in understanding political reality is when partisans begin believing their own inaccurate descriptions of their opponents and then when they draw conclusions about the political landscape based on their misinterpretations of their opponents’ beliefs.”

Perhaps we simply have the misfortune of living in a tit for tat age, with few people willing to break the toxic cycles. Hurt my side and I'll hurt you right back. At least I am trying to break it, by trying to get people to look at Obama in an historical context, just as I did Bush during the last couple of years, as when HNN published the worst president poll results while he was in office. Maybe trying to be fair to Democrats and Republicans alike is a characteristic of a centrist and a moderate. If others don't want to join me, hey, that's their call. Stand where you wish, I'll continue to stand where I stand, in the middle.

If anyone is interested in reading this essay by Larison, it is available at AmConMag at

- 1/23/2010

Economic immorality. That’s a very, very interesting theory. Maybe decades of self-indugence and focusing on “me” rather than “we” has taken a toll on the public psyche. Look at the signs of self centeredness and refusal to look out for future generations we’ve seen since 1980. On the personal side, low savings rates, maxing out the credit card, buying larger homes than they need, owning multiple cars when their more frugal parents got by with one (granted, it was an age when women stayed home), carrying a lot of personal debt. On the political side, saying “gimme, gimme” to Washington (“don’t touch my Medicare”), voting for officials who spend, spend, spend but are afraid to tax (Reagan was the last who was able to get away with it, voters have handcuffed subsequent Presidents). Maybe that type of self indulgence has torn at the image Americans like to have of themselves (self reliant, prudent, watching out for their families). The older generation definitely dropped the ball in terms of watching out for their descendents. That’s got to hurt, knowing they’re passing on a less good life on to their kids and grandkids as a result.

As to the response by anonymoous: Didn’t you notice that most of what you were responding to on the issue of economic morality were the suggestions of David Brooks, a Republican pundit who regularly writes for the New York Times? Yet you cast aspersions about wonkism and elitism and leftism (which definitely doesn’t fit with Brooks) at the poster of the comment. That makes it seem as if you’re unfamiliar with Brooks and also that you read too quickly to discern where passages were set between quotation marks. In academe, when someone quotes other people’s thoughts and writing, as this poster did from a couple of sources, it’s usually an attempt to open up topics for discussion, not to invite the unleashing of ad hominems on the person doing the posting. The idea behind such quotes is, let’s see how this looks to others and throw it open for reasonable discussion. Your tactical response makes little sense politically. To beat up on someone and call them a lefty instead of just engaging with them is the surest way to signal, “don’t ever put me and my side in charge.” Governing requires looking out for everyone, even people with whom you disagree.

You have a view of politics which seems foreign to me. Maybe I just have more confidence in our system than you do. In politics, as I see it, no one on either side is “telling people what they need.” That’s not part of the American way, we don’t have a top down system, never have, never will (and certainly don’t now). What there really are in the U.S. are two major parties with differing ideological approaches and the same goals (doing what is best for the nation). While I don’t doubt that there may be a small number of people who think Obama is an “American communist,” I think that mostly reflects ignorance of communism and a certain underlying softness. David Brooks has written that we need to be a more mature and resilient people. I agree with him. There aren’t that many people in the U.S. who have lived under communism in Europe or Cuba or Southeast Asia. But I think wider exposure to them among Americans would quickly toughen up the “Obama’s a commie” folks and lead them to see how odd that assertion is. I’ve chatted with some people who’ve lived under communism and some of them have laughed at the “Obama is a commie” line and have called it naïve.

- 1/22/2010

You wrote a book there, but I'll deal with some of it.

The Bush Medicare Rx benefit was really just an extension of Medicare. In 1965 they kept the old folks in the hospital, but by 2003 they were home taking pills, instead--expensive pills. To cover the cost of those pills was really an extension of hospitalization coverage, while NOT to cover the pills would have been a REDUCTION in Medicare benefits.

The Bush tax cuts proved well-designed to extract the nation very quickly from the funk after 9-11, when grass was growing in our airport runways and the Dow was in a tailspin.
It was precisely the right medicine, and had Al Gore been president at the time we would have had precisely the wrong medicine, something like today, it is worth remembering.

"Energy taxes and spending cuts are now deemed impossible... but this is what the country actually needs."

That is utter foolishness. We have more energy in the ground than Saudi Arabia, and we need to dig it up. Also, you cannot arrogate to yourself the honor of deciding what the country needs--that is dictatorship by wonkism. Your notions above are not just foolish, but also arrogant, tend to favor coercive utopianism, set you up as an "elitist," (and perhaps a dangerous one), which is in part what renders the ideas "politically impossible." They also fall on their own stupidity. In this country one never gets anywhere telling people "what they need," or how they "don't know what is good for them." (That is Obamaism!) You cannot, in fact, attempt to do things which are "politically impossible," unless you are willing to abolish the Constitution. (Yes, many on the left are).

By the way, religion doesn't fit into these equations anywhere. Thomas Jefferson solved that one for us with his Virginia Statutes on Religious Freedom, which can be summed up in one word: tolerance. Unfortunately, contemporary Democrats and academics know very little of his solution, but it just happens to work like magic everywhere it's tried.

That spending cuts are NOT impossible was demonstrated following the election of 1994, when the Republicans took the House and forced Clinton into welfare reform and other spending restraints (rather than cuts)which were plenty enough, in a growing economy, to produce a quick surplus. It can be done again, but not unless there is good growth and something IN IT for investors. (Which can never happen under Obama). I think the Massachusetts voters could smell that last Tuesday.

The government should do as little "worker re-training" as it possibly can. (From what I've seen it never works, anyway). Much better to take those former steel workers or whatever and let them climb on an oil rig for Alaska. We should know better than trying to put square pegs in round holes--or trying to "put" anybody anywhere. (Besides, most of those people were not educable during their first 13 years in government schools, why should they be now? They don't need classrooms, they need paychecks. It is mostly stakeholders in the classroom systems who say otherwise.

Your begin your essay, of course, from a basically flawed premise: that Obama is still trusted by a majority of the Massachusetts voters based on their answers to pollsters. In fact, Obama is now often seen as an American communist, thanks to his czar appointments, mostly pinkos, his attempted nationalization of the health industry, auto industry, and large banks and brokerages, and his lifelong association with people like
Ayers, Davis, Valerie Barratt(?) and Jeremiah Wright. The man in the street is catching on. The exit polls were badly skewed by lying answers, owing to Obama's race, and the fear of being thought a racist. (Although it is possible to like him and not trust him). It is extremely naive to give those poll figures any credibility. The election in Massachusetts was a referendum on Obama. Voters in the Bay State did not approve of him.

Elizabeth Cregan - 1/22/2010

In the end it means that americans are aware that in order to properly govern this massive republic, our govt requires a balance of parties. It is only with this balance that party politics can fall to the wayside (ok relative to an unbalanced congress). Obama can no longer control the legislative body, debate can be forced over key issues, and neither side has to feel tramped on by the other, which in most cases leads to more compramise on both sides. A state may carry a mojority of a party, and be able to govern under a single political perspective, but the nation is too large and diverse to be properly governed by the prinicipals of a single party and requires a balance of both.

MK - 1/21/2010

No, I have to disagree, based on the drill information in polling. I don’t think that was a factor in Massachusetts. According to a CNN poll this month, Obama gets his highest marks from the public for his personal leadership characteristics and for handling of national security and foreign policy. CNN noted recently, "’On the plus side for Obama, he remains personally popular and he gets decent ratings on foreign policy and national security issues. That may explain why his overall approval rating is a little higher [51%[ than the number who say Obama's first year has been a success,’ says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. ‘Unfortunately for Obama, domestic issues - led by the economy - are far more important to the public than foreign policy issues, and a majority disapprove of how he is handling every single economic and domestic issue tested.’"

The economic issues are interesting. Since you’re a Republican, I would like your take on one aspect of them. My question relates to the type of dissonance that I referred to above. Perhaps you can help me as I try to sort it out. My reading of comments by Republican voters on blogs reveals a belief in self-sufficiency, an appreciation for people who are productive members of society, a focus on family values, and a desire to have minimal governmental spending on relief for those who can’t work. I used to be a Republican so I am not unsympathetic to people who value hard work and self sufficiency, although I do see some inconsistencies in how people judge what's going on and what should be done. That said, how do you see those principles applying to the people described here, “Should Men Who Worked With Their Hands Return to the Classroom?: at If they are Should the government be subsidizing their training? If so, how does that fit in with the notion that government should stay out of such situations and that market forces drive these issues? What happens to people in the “mancession” who once were productive but no longer are and whose jobs never will come back? Do they slip into the category most Republican blog commentators condemn as unproductive? Are government efforts to help them part of redistribution of wealth through expenditure of tax dollars and thus to be condemned also? What about the family situations described in the article?

What about the Just World Theory that some Republicans espouse on blogs, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people? I can’t square that with what is described in the article. I don’t see that the people described there, who need government assistance with training—paid for with our tax dollars--did anything wrong, per se. That I am well off and comfortable doesn’t mean I begrudge my tax dollars going to help people like that.

What about the issue I raised above, stewardship during the last 40 years? Entitlements and debt make up most of the federal budget. Only one-third of the federal budget is comprised of discretionary spending. (In 1965, it was 66%.) It is impossible to pare that one-third, which includes defense, homeland security, and all domestic programs, down enough to reduce the deficit significantly. Look at how the deficit ballooned during Bush’s term, when federal spending on domestic programs went up a mere 1.1%. The Bush deficit skyrocketed due to tax cuts, increases in defense spending, and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. Since domestic spending can’t be cut enough to reduce the deficit significantly, what should Republican voters support? Getting rid of the prescription drug benefit? Abolishing Medicare altogether, leaving seniors to contemplate the type of poverty common before 1965? Raising taxes? Supporting a consumption tax (VAT) to deal with the revenue gap? How long will voters try to “have it all?” What are you hearing out there, are they finally getting “sober?”

What about personal responsibility? David Brooks believes the next “culture war” will be economic. There’s a danger that this may become intergenerational. (See the comment from a young reader at ) The writer at the link I just posted describes conflicts with a father but you have to wonder what else is going on out there even in families with less disagreement among them than described there. Do some older people with children feel some guilt that they have been such poor stewards, that they have voted for more, more, more for themselves while simultaneously saying, keep your hands off my wallet? And that the next generation will be the first in America to be less well off than the previous one? Is that part of the perhaps unacknowledged angst and anxiety and anger among older people (guilt) and younger people (resentment)? Americans like to think of themselves as people with good values—and most of them, Blue and Red alike, do--but Brooks notes that the citizenry has developed a problem with what he calls economic morality.

Brooks observes that in “the three decades between 1950 and 1980, personal consumption was remarkably stable, amounting to about 62 percent of G.D.P. In the next three decades, it shot upward, reaching 70 percent of G.D.P. in 2008. During this period, debt exploded. In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans’ personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income.”

Brooks believes that “Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.
It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.”

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/21/2010

Don't overlook the power of a comment Scott Brown made in his victory speech: "Americans want their taxes used to fight terrorists, not to defend them."

That proposition is one which 80% of Democrats in the U.S. agree with, along with 100% of Republicans--BUT it's also one Eric Holder and Barack Obama do NOT agree with. This election was partly about national health care, sure, but primarily a referendum on Obama, and the majority have had enough of him. And since they are fed up in Massachusetts, it shows he is in deep trouble everywhere. No local election has ever had more national significance.

It is instructive dto notice how such Massachusetts Democrats as Barney Frank and John Kerry have reacted. They are frightened for their own seats! (Brown carried Frank's district).

MK - 1/21/2010

The economy looms large in the electoral picture. As the recent film title suggests, “It’s complicated.” Voters both want and need Uncle Sam but reject him and how he has been doing some things over the last 20 years. Yet in their personal lives, many have been doing the same things with their eager acceptance of a prosperity gospel. There's a lot of dissonance and angst out there about independence and self reliance and living beyond one's means. You can't reject yourself as head of household or even admit that you should have planned better and shouldn't have lived beyond your means. You can reject people who run for office.

A reader at Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish noted in an email he posted yesterday that this was “an angry white male” election. The reader noted, “I was curious to see who in our small, fairly wealthy town was fired up enough to actually get out there and hold signs for Brown — turns out, a hockey dad and the assistant Pop Warner football coach, both white guys in their 40s, both small business owners. These guys may possibly have voted for Obama, but that’s about as far over on the macho scale as they’d ever be willing to go. . . when Coakley won, they were out of there.

She’s a lawyer and a female DA, so doubly emasculating in their eyes. She didn’t help herself after the primary by only relying on the old Hillary base, which is other ball-buster female lawyers.” Without exit polls, it's hard to know whether this is true. We do know, as Michael Gerson points out in a column in Wednesday's Washington Post, that we are undergoing a "mancession."

According to Gerson, many jobs just are disappearing. "Because job losses have been concentrated in manufacturing and construction, about 75 percent have come among men. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia says, 'In recent years, college-educated men have done all right financially, but working-class men have not. They have seen their real wages fall and their rates of unemployment rise. Consequently, working-class men are less attractive to the women in their lives as husbands and providers, and they are less likely to see themselves as capable of being good husbands and providers.' In the long run, Wilcox predicts this will undercut marriage in working-class communities and leave men more rootless and socially disconnected.”

It’s easy to reach for feel-good explanations of voter angst but we need to dig deeper. Draw the wrong lessons and we will reinforce tendencies towards intergenerational warfare.

Is it too late to resolve some of the issues (how best to handle entitlement spending, climate change, the effects of globalizaiton) that are causing intergenerational conflict and angst and guilt and dissonance about government and self reliance and spending? Gerson suggests a bipartisan combination of more conservative jobs creation policies and more liberal funding of training and re-training programs. He doesn’t mention that this would require voters to accept measures that are somewhat conservative and somewhat liberal. That is, to reconcile the dissonance of wanting or needing more from Uncle Sam but also rejecting him. Are people up for the challenges? We’ll have to wait and see.

Dale R Streeter - 1/20/2010

I don't usually do "me too" comments, but I couldn't agree more with this analysis.

MGalen - 1/20/2010

Scott Brown's win signals independent-minded Americans displeasure with "we know best" elitism in the political/media class, as well as reckless, unsustainable spending, and ever-expanding government. BOTH parties should take heed. The way to victory is fiscal responsibility, smaller, less-intrusive government, and knocking off cronyism and bailouts.

Paul Bailey - 1/20/2010

This means that American people are angry with President Obama's agendy.
Massachusetts citizens are angry and they normally are not a good representation of America. They see and hear how America feels about this health care bill, uncontrolled spending, government growth, not upholding the constitution and a number of other things this administration has done and they reflected America's feeling in their vote. Thank you Massachutetts.