I dread all the Washington spin that will follow today’s Massachusetts special election, more than usual. Because I live in Massachusetts and the predictable oversimplifications will literally hit close to home.
While everyone will say the election results mean this or that, the one aspect of the campaign that everyone will miss is: there has barely been a campaign.
Everyone is piling on Democratic candidate Martha Coakley for not taking the campaign seriously since her primary victory last month. But the truth is no one took the campaign seriously. Until last week, there had been scant media coverage and overt campaign activity.
Republican candidate Scott Brown has a right to be proud of his under-the-radar campaign. But being on the ground in Massachusetts, my sense of things is people have had little idea of either candidate’s positions, because there’s been so little attention and scrutiny.
That’s allowed Brown to (so far) pull off the old trick of tailoring your message to different ideological camps, a move made much more complicated in the age of YouTube where every utterance in a campaign tends to get scrutiny.
Most successful Republicans in Massachusetts win by running as fiscally tough social moderates in the Bill Weld mold. And that has only worked in governor’s races where Republicans can position themselves as checks on the heavily Democratic state legislature. That strategy hasn’t worked for national races in decades. Massachusetts voters have typically recognized that having an additional Republican in the U.S. Senate has a very different impact than having a Republican governor who would have no choice but to work across the partisan divide. (Weld, for example, was unable to transfer his statewide popularity into a Senate victory.)
Brown has not styled himself as a Bill Weld, but has presented two faces. To the right-wing minority, he has been a right-winger, casting doubt about global warming and opposing gay rights. To the Massachusetts middle, he’s been a generic populist. He drives a truck! He rails against “business as usual” and “government getting bigger and bigger” in Washington — messages that now have superficial cross-ideological appeal in the wake of the bank bailout. He responded to an attack by his opponent by appealing to “independent-minded voters” who want to oppose the “political machine.”
That two-step appears to have worked, at least for a time. But this comment from a Boston voter, left on the Boston Globe webpage collecting election day anecdotes, struck me:
I voted for Coakley to honor Ted Kennedy and his work for the State for 47 years. To be honest, I wanted to vote for Brown to send a message to the Democrats. I was/am a big Obama supporter but I am not happy with how the Dems are steamrolling their plan.
This voter, because he was mad at congressional Democrats for undercutting the president he continues to support, seriously considering voting for the Republican to “send a message.” Because this race has garnered so little attention, you could have a message in your own mind and graft it on to the candidate of your choosing.
In the past several days, Massachusetts Democratic leaders have been sounding the alarm, and apparently, it worked with this voter at the last minute. I’m not saying that means Coakley will win. I have no idea what the outcome of today will be.
The only point I’m making here is that this race never crystallized into a full airing of the issues. The campaign snapped from non-existent into a week of media frenzied chaos after a couple polls showed it to be a close race.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be lessons to draw from today’s results. The mere fact that the Senate race is the least bit competitive would suggest that a lot of Massachusetts voters — left, right and center — are not happy with that status quo for various reasons. (And a lot of Massachusetts voters are not happy with the Massachusetts status quo, which has little to do with President Obama’s agenda.)
But, for example, to argue that what would make Massachusetts and the nation happier is to kill health care reform — when the pending legislation is modeled on Massachusetts legislation that commands 58% support in the state (and is opposed by a mere 28%), and continues to be backed by both Massachusetts candidates — simply makes no sense.
The fact that a different poll shows that Massachusetts voters oppose the pending national health care bill, while also supporting their own state’s similar reform, speaks to a state of confusion about what’s going on in Washington.
I suspect that’s the real lesson: there is so much happening in Washington, and it’s so difficult for politicians to communicate what is happening when they are in the middle of hashing out complicated disagreements, that many voters are plain confused. And confusion can easily lead to anger.
I’m sure some politicians can take that lesson and decide to do less. It would be less confusing!
But it’s also confusing to voters when they send people to Washington to solve problems and those people just watch problems fester.