I detect a certain giddiness on the right — something to which I am not immune — regarding Scott Brown’s impending victory today in Massachusetts. But, like the slave who stood behind the Roman generals in their chariot as they received the adulation of the crowds during their triumph and whispered “Remember … thou art but a man” constantly into their ears, so too must I whisper in the ear of Republicans today: “Remember … Dick Thornburgh in 1991.” From Pollster.com:
I am sure that there are other example, but the one that stands out for me is the victory of Democrat Harris Wofford in 1991. Wofford, appointed earlier that year to fill a vacant Senate seat, began as a virtual unknown and began trailing by more than 40 points against popular former Republican Governor Dick Thornburgh. Although the final round of public polls showed the candidates running about even, Wofford’s momentum helped carry him to what turned out to be an eleven point victory margin (55 percent to 44 percent).
Of course, the same factors that make the trend toward Scott Brown so unusual also make the polling challenging and potentially misleading. Brown has moved up so rapidly partly because campaign has been truncated, but the rapid change also prompted a late avalanche of negative advertising by the Democrats directed at Brown. Because it is a special election being held on an usual date, pollsters have no prior history to judge the size and demographics of the likely electorate. The likely voter problem is one reason why polling errors tend to be larger in special elections.
In other words, anything can happen. That Roman general might have fallen off his horse the next day and broken his neck, or run afoul of Caesar and met some particularly gruesome end. In Massachusetts, Democrats might wake up this morning and ask themselves if they really want to hand the hated GOP such a monumental victory. Or perhaps a couple of hundred thousand Republicans will fall off their horses and break their necks.
After more than 30 years of being involved in politics, I can assure you that if it is possible, it can happen. A Coakley victory, no matter how unlikely at this point, cannot be dismissed. I offer this not in the spirit of Cassandra, but simply as a longtime observer of politics who has seen sure things turn into tears on Election Day more often than he cares to remember.
That said, let’s pretend it’s tomorrow morning and Scott Brown’s glowing visage fills the screens of our televisions. Pundits will be chattering about the extraordinary debacle for Obama and the Democrats, and that’s the way it should be.
But might a Brown victory also pose a danger for Republicans?
Consider: With this victory is going to come expectations. Just what those expectations might be are going to vary wildly between the conservative rank and file in the Republican Party and those who are going to give Brown his victory — namely, the poor, put-upon, and slightly confused independent voter.
The base will be celebrating the destruction of the Democrats’ liberal agenda. But the independents won’t want to stop there. They may actually expect the GOP to work with the Democrats to get things done. Fixing the economy for starters; then, perhaps looking at some kind of health care reform that makes sense. Finally, with gas set to rise again, it may be prudent to come up with an energy policy beyond “drill baby, drill.” These are three issues that independents may very well expect the Republicans to help deliver on.
The health care issue in Massachusetts is interesting because it was never about government control of the health care system. With 98% of state residents covered by some kind of insurance, ObamaCare became a millstone for the Democrats because of its god awful price tag — which, piled on top of the rest of the out of control spending by Dems, caused even left-leaning independents to blanch at the thought of a trillion-dollar government program plopped in the taxpayers’ lap in the midst of a deep recession.
There were other problems with the health care issue for Democrats, including their arrogance about it, their obsessiveness with getting it passed at all costs, and their failure to address economic issues in lieu of health care reform. But the important thing to remember is that a majority of indies still want some kind of health care reform, and killing ObamaCare is only half the equation.
Moderate and Blue Dog Democrats know this, which is why they might be tempted to vote for a much more modest, realistic, and — dare I say — conservative version of health care reform. Meanwhile, the GOP base (many of whom see nothing wrong with our health care system at all) will settle for simply blocking the Democrats from accomplishing anything.
Is that a viable strategy for going into the 2010 midterms? I suppose it’s going to have to be since the chances of Boehner or McConnell lifting a finger to address any problem facing the country are just about nil. And that brings me to the danger posed by Brown’s victory raising expectations among independents nationwide.
On the one hand, there is the danger that if the GOP were actually to cooperate with Democrats on issues of mutual concern, they wouldn’t get any credit for their efforts from the voters. On the other hand, there is the real danger that the charge of “obstructionism” by Democrats may carry a little more weight given the circumstances of Brown’s victory.
Threading the needle on expectations is going to be an interesting problem for the Republican leadership, one made more complex by the activism of the tea party movement. Paralysis may be the only viable option when so many are so angry at so much of the inside-the-beltway elite. “Responsible” governance might require that the GOP work with the Democrats to at least bring the economy out of its horrible doldrums. But anything proposed beyond tax cuts would probably be met by fierce resistance from those who see any government spending to stimulate the economy as worse than useless and an actual betrayal of conservative principles.
Such might be the case, but the question of whether the bulk of the American people will stand still for gridlock with the economy in the shape it is in today needs to be answered. The Republicans may want to think long and hard about that in the run-up to the 2010 midterms, when voters may decide that those who obstructed measures that might have lifted the economy out of its malaise without offering any realistic alternative of their own should not be rewarded with the keys to power.