Back to the Future in Massachusetts
Congratulations to Scott Brown in his history making upset victory in Massachusetts, it surely shows that no seat is safe or certain in the age of the independent voter or amid the shifting tides of anti-incumbent sentiments. The one thing that is abundantly clear is that Brown rode to victory on a wave of independent voter support and not because large numbers of Massachusetts voters have suddenly embraced the principles of the G.O.P. and switched their party affiliation. In his acceptance speech Brown acknowledged: “Tonight the independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken.” Also, let us take a moment to thank Mr. Brown for putting the Republican Party back in the game of creating meaningful legislation for now they will no longer have the political cover of hiding behind the excuse that the Democrats control everything due to their filibuster proof supermajority. The arrival of Scott Brown in Washington means that the G.O.P. will now be held accountable for actually producing some sort of legislative product. The days of just saying “no” to every proposal put forth by the Obama Administration are over.
The degree to which the Massachusetts election is a repudiation of the Obama Administration is less than perfectly clear. A post election poll by Peter Hart, Election Night Survey Of Massachusetts Senate Voters, produced findings that reveal evidence of a working class revolt arising from unaddressed economic concerns; a continued desire to fix health care with no support for an abandonment of reform efforts; the sense that Obama has done too little rather than too much; that local issues trump the issue of Obama’s overall approval and; that there is no evidence of any endorsement of the Republican agenda on the economy or otherwise. According to Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, Obama’s approval rating in Massachusetts was 60 percent before the election as well as thereafter. In contrast a poll by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University’s School of Public Health found, as per the Post’s Dan Balz: “Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, antipathy toward federal-government activism and opposition to the Democrats’ health-care proposals drove the upset election of Republican senatorial candidate Scott Brown in Massachusetts.” Interestingly, 52 percent of Brown’s supporters said that Obama was not a factor in their decision to vote. Balz points out another noteworthy finding from this poll: “Among Brown’s supporters who say the health-care reform effort in Washington played an important role in their vote, the most frequently cited reasons were concerns about the process, including closed-door dealing and a lack of bipartisanship. Three in 10 highlighted these political maneuverings as the motivating factor; 22 percent expressed general opposition to reform or the current bill.” There is also an element of misconception in Scott Brown’s opposition to Obama’s health care initiatives. In an article detailing Brown’s involvement in Massachusetts’s health care reform, David M. Herszenhorn points out: “Mr. Brown, as a state senator, voted in favor of the Massachusetts universal health care law in 2006, when the state became the first in the nation to pass a far-reaching overhaul guaranteeing coverage for nearly every state resident and requiring everyone in Massachusetts to obtain insurance. Mr. Brown, in campaigning against the health care legislation emerging in Washington, has sought to portray it as fundamentally different from the Massachusetts plan. But Massachusetts was actually an important model for what Congress has developed, arguably the model for what Congress envisions.” It is hard to make the argument that the Massachusetts voters are against health care reform when 68 percent of the voters in Tuesday’s election say they support the existing state plan. Slightly more than half of those who voted for Brown also favor that plan. Even Jennifer Nassour, the Chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said on the New Hour (1/20/10): “We have health care in Massachusetts and we do want quality health care for everyone, like we have it here in Massachusetts.” Beyond Massachusetts there is new evidence in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll that reveals that while Americans are evenly divided over the health reform proposals being debated in Congress, they are actually more supportive of reform generally, when specifics are examined.
Like the Hart poll above, the Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard polling shows, according to Balz: ”GOP policies prove even less popular, with 58 percent of Massachusetts voters saying they are dissatisfied or angry about what Republicans in Congress are offering. Among those voting for Brown, 60 percent give positive marks to the policies of congressional Republicans, but a sizable number, 37 percent, offer a negative appraisal.” To date, the Republican Party on Capitol Hill continues to trail the Democrats on the issue of overall approval ratings. Likewise, the numbers of Americans who identify as Republicans is at historically low levels. The latest political identification polling results available on Pollster.com reveals that just 22.5 percent of those polled identify as Republicans. What does this all mean for Scott Brown? I think the simple answer is that if he wants to get re-elected in 2012 he will act more like Olympia Snowe of Maine than South Carolina’s Jim DeMint. In fact Snowe has indicated a renewed interest in a health care compromise and Scott Brown my very well be the ally she has been looking for on her side of the aisle. Deep in their hearts, Republicans know that the health care system is broken and unsustainable in its current form and ultimately they don’t want to be the ones associated with continued failure.
No analysis of the 2010 Massachusetts election can be complete without acknowledging that the Tea Party Movement has moved, at least for the time being, from the fringe into the mainstream of American politics. When you sift out the gun toting crackpots living out their “Minuteman” fantasies and the ideologically challenged that sport placards about Fascism, Socialism and Marxism thereby revealing their utter lack of understanding of these ideologies or there applicability to the present, there are actually people within the movement who know how to make a difference. In Massachusetts they did. But the real question for the G.O.P. is has it made a deal with the Devil in jumping onboard the Tea Party tiger? It is one thing to embrace the Tea Party Movement when the opposition is a Democrat, but what about the prospect of intra-party challenges during the upcoming 2010 Republican primary process. The Tea Party crowd has been up front about its wanting to “purify” the G.O.P. of those who don’t hew to a far right agenda. Even Republican heavyweights like John Cornyn R-TX are in their cross hairs. Likewise, for Scott Brown, getting too close to the Tea Party Movement may result in a one-way ticket back to Massachusetts in 2012. A new group within the Tea Party Movement called “The National Precinct Alliance” aims to take over the G.O.P. from the bottom up by capturing local committee leadership positions which will allow the movement to endorse candidates, formulate policy platforms and control asset allocation. The net result may be either an all out civil war within the G.O.P. or a restructured party far to the right of center. As conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer recently pointed out in one of his editorials, politics in America is played within the 40-yard line, on either side of midfield. When either party tries to push past that 40-yard line there is push back within the electorate. That said, it is hard to imagine a G.O.P. reformed by the Tea Party Movement as occupying any turf around midfield which would have a net affect of alienating independents and pushing the G.O.P.’s favorability ratings even lower than they are today. When you combine the Tea Party Movement’s penchant for ideological purity with the likes of it’s leading personalities: Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint, you have a formula for driving independent voters into the hills and thereby affecting a drain off of support for any type of centrist Republican agenda. Mark my words, the G.O.P. may be celebrating the election of Scott Brown now but they will soon rue the day that they got onto the Tea Party tiger, especially when they see where the ride is taking the G.O.P.
Beyond the challenges facing the G.O.P. the other relevant question is: Can Barack Obama’s new found populist campaign drain some of the steam out of the collective Tea Party kettles? Political commentator Sam Tanenhaus recently opined that the Tea Party surge in Massachusetts was a combination of two forces, anger over deficits and a drive for ideological purity. As I already said, the ideological purity issue is a poison pill for the G.O.P. and a subject beyond the control of the Obama administration as it is an internal G.O.P. issue. If Democrats can regain the initiative in crafting health care reform that truly reduces the deficit and successfully combines that with some degree of positive results stemming from the new populist push, then a large part of the Tea Party message will begin to dissipate.
One thing that the election of Scott Brown does not change is the embedded problems that beset health care and thereby deficit growth in America. Again, David Herszenhorn lays out the predicament: “Here’s what has not changed about the health care system in America. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, by 2019 there will be 54 million people in the United States without health insurance. The chief actuary of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says it will be even worse: 57 million people without insurance. In 2017, just seven years from now, the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted. Empty. Dried up. Done. Total national expenditures on health care will continue to soar, according to the chief actuary, to $4.7 trillion in 2019 from $2.6 trillion today. The average cost of an employer-sponsored family health insurance policy will rise to $20,300 in 2019, or about $10,000 more than today, consuming an ever growing portion of family income and continuing to put downward pressure on wages.” The average American would do him/herself a favor in asking their employer a simple question: How much does my health care cost and how much has its cost increased over the last ten years? Then they might ask: If not for the cost of health care, how much would my income derived from my employment with this company gone up and with it my standard of living? Thereafter, they might just want to go over the fine print in their coverage to see what kind of health care they actually have and to what degree it protects them and their family assets from insurance coverage shortfalls.
When the dust clears and the supporters of Scott Brown emerge from their celebratory hangovers and head out onto the street to again address the issue of deficits and health care reform etc., they will see, sitting there on the horizon the same broken health care system with its runaway costs feed by a failure to address what are now the inherent inadequacies of the “free market” to provide affordable coverage to all. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same and so we are back to where we were a year ago, we have gone back to the future.
Steven J. Gulitti
New York City
January 24, 2010