Late on Tuesday evening of this week I reflected on the amazing developments of the past few weeks. Since Christmas Eve, when the United States Senate pushed through its version of health-care/reform – replete with Christmas goodies for various states whose senators held out on supporting the reform – a strong majority of the country’s voters have been sunk in a deep gloom. The biggest economic transformation in our national history was poised to slide downhill toward final passage, but no one seemed able to do a thing to stop it. We needed a “miracle” – a sentiment I heard uttered by more than one friend and acquaintance – but no miracle seemed likely to appear.
Amazingly, though, one did begin to materialize – reminiscent of that small cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, in the time of the Prophet Elijah. Unnoticed at first, that cloud began to grow and grow, until it dominated the entire horizon. Soon its presence was undeniable. And on Tuesday of this week it began to rain. In political terms, that cloud was the candidacy of Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and the metaphorical “rainstorm” was his smashing victory over Democratic machine-candidate Martha Coakley, who was contending with him for the Senate seat vacated by the late Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy last summer.
Mr. Kennedy had occupied that seat since 1962, but it was originally occupied by his brother, Senator John Kennedy, from 1953 to 1961. When JFK assumed the presidency, Benjamin A. Smith II, a Kennedy loyalist, was asked to keep the seat warm until 1962, when Edward Kennedy would become eligible to serve in the Senate by reaching age 30. Mr. Smith resigned on schedule so Mr. Kennedy could run for the seat in a special election, which he won in November 1962. He was sworn in immediately after the election, as the seat had already been vacated by Mr. Smith’s resignation. He served, with few serious challenges, until his death from a brain tumor in August 2009, at age 77.
Because of this long tradition of the seat being occupied by a strong Democrat, there was no indication of any change on the horizon on December 8, 2009, when Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley won the Democratic nomination in the primary preceding January's special election to fill the seat. A little-known state senator named Scott Brown won the Republican primary, but he attracted almost no notice. The Democratic primary in Massachusetts is generally regarded as the “real” election for most offices, as overwhelming numbers of Massachusetts public office-holders are Democrats. Massachusetts is, in today’s parlance, the bluest of blue states. At the time of her primary win, Martha Coakley held a 30-point lead in the polls over her virtually unknown opponent.
But the little cloud of Mr. Brown’s candidacy began to grow. Soon after the primary election, the U. S. Senate passed a wildly unpopular health-care/insurance reform bill filled with pork-deals for various states and constituent groups. The public was furious, but Democrats had the votes, and they pushed it through. After Congress adjourned for Christmas and New Year, the storm signals went up.
While no one was paying much attention, Mr. Brown launched his campaign against unresponsive government, big spending, high taxes, high unemployment, bank-bailouts, incompetent national security, and the massive reordering of our lives that the new health-care bill will represent. Handsome, articulate, and bold as a lion, Mr. Scott took the Bay State by storm – stumping across it in his pickup truck and shaking hands with thousands of voters who were looking for a miracle and hoping that he might be it.
Democrats asleep at the switch finally saw the danger, but it was too late. Mr. Brown had seized the political high ground and staked out his position as the populist reformer who would do his best to stop the Democrats’ seemingly unstoppable agenda. Pitifully inadequate attempts to prop up Ms. Coakley’s flagging campaign looked like umbrellas blown inside out in the gathering storm. They did nothing to arrest Scott Brown’s total domination of the campaign and its issues.
When President Obama flew to Massachusetts on the Sunday before the election, he said nothing about health reform or any of his administration’s other signature issues. Instead, he was reduced to cracking wise about Mr. Brown’s pickup truck and spinning a yarn about how Martha Coakley would represent the “little people” in the U. S. Senate. Even Democrat-friendly media gave this the horselaugh, since Ms. Coakley had spent much time cultivating and raising money from various special interests, while Scott Brown was taking his campaign to the people. Everyone knew Martha Coakley was poised to carry on the great Democrat Party tradition of talking populist and governing special interest.
There is a famous photograph of Calvin Coolidge wearing an Indian war-bonnet while meeting with a group of Native Americans. I thought of that photo when I saw clips of Mr. Obama trying to rap with Massachusetts Democrats at a Coakley rally on January 17th. It was truly pathetic – perhaps emblematic of what has become of the wonderful hope and change promised by Mr. Obama. He has fallen so far, so fast. Like the crash of the Hindenburg, it is tragic, but a marvel to behold.
In a much-televised debate between Ms. Coakley and Mr. Brown, hosted by Commentator David Gergen, Mr. Gergen pompously sniffed at Mr. Brown presuming to sit “in Teddy Kennedy’s seat,” trying to do something about health care reform. Mr. Brown’s rejoinder was memorable: “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat – it’s the people’s seat…”
It was a perfect précis of the campaign and perhaps of the current political era. David Gergen, Martha Coakley, Barack Obama, and perhaps many Democrats had forgotten that all of those Congressional seats are the people’s seats. They are the birthright of no particular party or family, and the people can award them to whomever they believe will represent their interests best. On January 19, 2010, the people of Massachusetts re-taught us this lesson – perhaps on the way to helping Americans reclaim both their government and their country.
I have no idea if Mr. Brown will be an effective senator and be able to accomplish even part of what he wants to do. The Senate is a tough place, and they don’t play beanbag there. I have seen high-minded politicians come and go, so I could easily be cynical. But I have to say I had tears in my eyes last night when I saw Scott Brown on the platform with his pretty wife – a woman of his own age! How radical is that? – and his two lovely daughters, speaking of the people’s interests, of integrity, and of doing the job he was being sent to do. I couldn’t help contrasting him with implacable liberal politicians who arrogantly believe they have a right to transform the greatest country on earth without the agreement of the people.
Americans are a great people, possessed of vast strength and resources. No problem is beyond us when we put our minds and energies to solving it. Just knowing that there are Scott Browns out there, waiting for the call to duty, is a source of great cheer and encouragement to me. I hope it is to Americans everywhere. The real miracle is the American character. We needed to be reminded of it.