Benjamin Franklin once said that a week is a long time in politics. Weeks like this sure make what one of our most famous Founding Fathers said look accurate.
This week changed the American landscape considerably. On Tuesday, the nation witnessed a Republican score a come-from-behind, five-point win in Massachusetts for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. It was an unexpected win for the Republican Party. Then on Thursday, the Supreme Court decided a case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that should have a profound effect on elections in this country.
Examining Scott Brown’s win is not so easy. It was, in some respects, a perfect storm. I have spent more time living in Massachusetts than in any other place, and I feel I have a pretty good handle on what makes Massachusetts tick. First, it tends to vote for national office in a very Democratic way. However, Massachusetts residents believe in fiscal responsibility and divided government. From the early days of the Pilgrims to the idea of a Boston common, Massachusetts has always gone its own way.
People read gay marriage as being on the left side in Massachusetts. That is definitely a wrong read. It has much more to do with individual liberty and the Yankee go-your-own-way when it comes to personal relationships. This is also true of New Hampshire, where gay marriage became legal in January, and where the state slogan is “live free or die.”
Almost 50 percent of the voters in Massachusetts are registered independents. It is not uncommon to see these folks vote for a Democratic member of the House or Senate, and then vote for a Republican governor. Since most people in Massachusetts have health insurance, most residents are wary of a federally controlled health-care program in which both costs and the details have not yet been ironed out. The good people of Massachusetts have also been concerned about jobs going away in addition to runaway federal spending. Massachusetts has never been wildly liberal when it comes to fiscal responsibility. Michael Dukakis once became a popular politician there for pledging to take a meat cleaver to the budget.
The other reason Brown won Massachusetts is because he operated like President Obama did during the campaign. He talked to everybody as he drove around the state in his truck. His opponent, Martha Coakley, didn’t even want to go stand outside Fenway Park and shake hands. She reportedly took the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. For her, that time would’ve been the perfect opportunity to spend with families who have lost their jobs. She completely blew her chance of convincing Massachusetts voters that she would go to Washington to fight for them.
Here’s the lesson President Obama needs to learn from the Massachusetts election: Americans want jobs; they don’t want to see their president vacationing in Hawaii (even if it is his home state) while they are having trouble putting food on their tables. Imagine if Obama had taken his Christmas vacation and spent time with various families in high unemployment states who are having trouble making it.
The other problem for Democrats is that Obama is being seen by many as caring about large banks, but not small mortgage holders. It doesn’t matter that much of these rescue policies we’ve seen lately started under President Bush. If you are sitting at your kitchen table wondering how you’re going to pay your mortgage, and then watch as large bonuses go to executives whose companies have been rescued by the government, you’re not going to be happy.
From a public-relations standpoint, the Supreme Court ruling in the campaign finance case was another small victory for Republicans. It has allowed them to argue that the decision will restore free speech rights to more Americans in that corporations are regular people, just like you and me. Many of the conservative talk show hosts I report for believe the net effect of the ruling will be that corporations will soon gain an upper hand on the unions. They equate giving corporations the freedom to spend unlimited money on campaign ads with true free speech.
Conservative talk-show hosts can tout the ruling as much as they want, but the pendulum will wind up swinging back after America gets a taste of corporate ads directly influencing elections. What the Supreme Court failed to point out is that corporate boards have a fiduciary responsibility to spend money only when it produces results. Therefore, placing ads that support specific candidates means that corporations will want to get a certain result from elections. If this is not legalized bribery, I don’t know what is.
Between the Massachusetts election and the Supreme Court decision, Republicans are high-fiving it this week. However, they’d better beware as neither the Massachusetts nor the court decision represents a paved road to Republican dominance. Voters will eventually smarten up and demand government that is responsive and smart. It might take years to overturn the Supreme Court decision through either legislation or new blood on the bench, but it will happen. Scott Brown had better vote independently in the Senate, or he will be gone in 2012.