Monday, January 18, 2010

Massachusetts Votes Tomorrow

What seemed unthinkable until just a few days ago, now on election eve looks utterly thinkable. Republican Scott Brown seems to have at least a 50/50 chance of defeating his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, in the special election in Massachusetts to choose the Senate successor to the late Ted Kennedy.

As I wrote here, a couple of weeks ago, the main reason why so much attention has been focused on the special election, is that Brown, who, if he wins, would be the Republicans 41st senator, would enable his party to sustain a filibuster against a compromise version of the health care legislation that has been approved in different forms in the House and Senate. In light of that, the upcoming election has several interesting implications:

In the post to which I linked above, I identified two possible Democratic strategies in the event of a Brown victory: 1) speed up the process, in order to get a compromise bill through the Senate while interim Democratic Senator Paul Kirk still represents Massachusetts; or 2) compromise further, in order to get the vote of at least one moderate Republican. Now, a third possibility has come to light: If the House were to approve exactly the same bill that has already been approved by the Senate, there would not need to be another Senate vote.

That sounds acceptable from a constitutional standpoint, but it carries political risks for the Democrats. Republicans would then be able, in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns, to portray the Democrats as elitists who will do anything to further their agenda, regardless of the will of the voters.

Another possibility is that the Democrats who control state government in Massachusetts could delay the certification of a Brown victory, and thereby allow Kirk to remain in the Senate for some period of time after tomorrow's election. Chris Frates and Manu Raju describe, in Politico, the arguments going back and forth between the parties regarding the legality of that scenario.

Frates and Raju also mention an additional scenario that could derail the legislation, even if, one way or the other, they prevent Brown from voting on the bill. Moderate Democrats who have supported the legislation up until now, could change their minds, if they read the Massachusetts result as a referendum rejecting the health care plan envisioned in that legislation. Looking toward their own reelection, either this year, or in the near future, they could become, depending on one's point of view, either rats deserting a sinking ship, or principled leaders ensuring that the will of the people is heard in Washington.

In order to head off such a reaction, left-wing commentators have been making the case that a Coakley defeat could be attributed to her shortcomings as a candidate, not to voters' dissatisfaction with Democrats generally, including President Obama.

Last week, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote that:

Martha Coakley, the Democratic Senate nominee, is the kind of candidate who reminds you that the state that gave birth to John Kennedy also produced Michael Dukakis. She is the attorney general, and her speaking style has been compared to that of a prosecutor delivering a summation to the jury. In civil court. In a trial that involved, say, a dispute over widget tariffs.

She is so tone deaf that she made fun of her opponent for standing outside Fenway Park shaking hands “in the cold.” A week before the election, Coakley was off the campaign trail entirely in Washington for a fund-raiser that was packed with the usual suspects. But undoubtedly it was well heated.

The best Collins can do, in attempting to criticize Brown, is to write that his daughter, a reality-show contestant, once spoke a badly-constructed sentence in an interview. I never thought that I would hear a political criticism that is more silly than the one about how former Vice President Dan Quayle was not fit for national office, because he once misspelled a word. But now I have.

Collins is undoubtedly correct that Coakley has not campaigned well. But, if Massachusetts elects a Republican to a Senate seat that has been continuously in Democratic hands since Ted Kennedy's older brother John defeated Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., 57 years ago, I think that would be a sign of more than just a couple of misstatements by the Democratic candidate.

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