Scott Brown’s Path to Re-electionPosted on October 28, 2011
The Mayor’s RacePosted on October 27, 2011
Cultists & Capitalists: Strange Bedfellows?Posted on October 26, 2011
Politics for Dummies!Posted on October 24, 2011
Scott Brown’s Path to Re-election
Having spent a considerable amount of ink on the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren and the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race in general, I’m feeling obliged to consider Senator Brown’s particular path to re-election as well. While I do think Elizabeth Warren is well positioned both as a campaign and in terms of the situational advantages of running with the President in our bright blue state, Senator Brown’s status as the incumbent, as well as his ability to differentiate himself from the rest of the state’s Capitol Hill delegation clearly make him a formidable candidate.
So, how should Senator Brown “play it” next year? How can he avoid being defined by Warren as Wall Street’s errand boy; as Mitch McConnell’s toady? In other words, what does his campaign have to do to make independent voters see him as their handsome, bright, reasonable neighbor who drives a pick up and as “one of us” who is watching our backs in Washington?
First, this being Massachusetts, he has to convince libertarian leaning independent voters that he’s still a “Massachusetts” Republican, which of course is code for “not a social conservative,” without tipping off our state’s small but feisty Tea Party crowd. His special election victory was greatly aided by a passionate and well mobilized Tea Party effort in the closing weeks of the campaign. In fact, I think it may be fair to say that these folks responded like real Minute Men in 2010. Unfortunately, having to avoid hard right positions in the Senate has reduced his stock with this crowd a bit. Also, because in 2012 his election won’t be the only game in town, he can’t rely on a GOTV organization that literally descended on the state from all over the country in 2010 to push him across the finish line.
So, how does he avoid being too closely associated with Senate Republicans and their hope of gaining control of the Senate? This is tricky, because it may not be clear whether enough voters are susceptible to the argument that a vote for Brown is a vote for a right wing senate? If he can get a handle on this issue using his internal polling, then his choice will be more clear. Either he could ignore this line of argument from his rival so as not to elevate it. Or, if it appears that such an approach by Warren was gaining traction, he would be forced to try to be more assertive in his response. Ideally, he would be able to ignore the senate takeover argument and just respond somewhat indirectly to the notion that he might not be as independent-minded after being elected to a full six year term in the senate.
If the political environment in which the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is gaining steam has not receded by next year, the Senator’s re-election team will need to fight a sort of two front political war. Indeed, with Warren as his opponent, such an atmosphere would serve her in ways similar to the ways the anti-Washington, Tea Party atmosphere of 2010 served him. As a national anti-Wall Street champion, Warren can expect the kind of national attention and assistance from progressives that Brown got last time from conservatives, and although Warren’s won’t be the only game in town nationally, it will be the only game in Massachusetts. The ground troops in Massachusetts from the Deval Patrick and Barack Obama organizations will clearly be P.C.I.N.O’s, or Presidential Campaigners in Name Only. Progressive and Democratic Party energy and resources will flood into the Warren camp next year.
So what’s a Massachusetts Republican Senator to do, other than pray that efforts to discredit the “Occupy Wall Streeters” start hitting their mark? Clearly, Brown has to find common ground with the more reasonable policy implications of this economic populism, on the one hand. And on the other hand, he has to find a way to connect on a values-level with this movement.
My advice is to enlist former U.S. Senator and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady as a campaign advisor and strategist. Brady’s recent Washington Post op-ed, titled “What, if anything, to do about Wall Street’s Wealth” was pitch perfect for the needs of our “Massachusetts” Republican. Brady scolds Wall Streeters who succumbed to the temptation to direct their energy and innovations toward non-productive financial instruments, calmly counsels against over-reaction without comparing protesters to the Jacobins of 1789, and touts the reasonableness and balance of his old boss George H.W. Bush, whose willingness to balance spending cuts with “revenue enhancements” was the politically courageous and economically right thing to do.
Massachusetts might be a perfect place for a Republican to try to associate himself with the elder President Bush’s contribution to the booming economy of the 1990’s. The fact that his unwillingness to cave into the irrational anti-tax crowd at that time may have cost him his re-election in 1992 is also a kind of win-win association for Brown, in that he needs independent voters to see him as similarly reasonable and principled.
The Mayor’s Race
The state’s third largest city is having a mayor’s race and to hear long time Western Mass journalists like Maureen Turner tell it, the question is does anyone know it in Springfield.
The race does have unusual significance in that the winner will be the first Springfield Mayor to serve a four year term. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of woes or issues with plenty of economic dislocation in the wake of last summer’s surprisingly powerful tornado, rising crime rates, a high profile murder trial, a controversial schools superintendent who has already announced that he will be leaving at the conclusion of his present contract, and even an unfolding financial corruption investigation involving administrators at one of the city’s four public high schools.
What do ya have to do to get a little attention around here!?!
The conventional wisdom, well represented in the Maureen Turner column cited above, is that the challenger in this Mayor’s race simply doesn’t have the campaign chops to put up much of a fight. There’s no doubt that long time Springfield School Committeeman and City Councilor Jose Tosado is a soft spoken and dignified guy, but that doesn’t seem like enough to account for a three to one drubbing in the primary election at a time when many city residents are saving time by wondering what’s right, rather than trying to get a handle on what’s wrong.
What else could be happening here? Could the city’s myriad problems coupled with a sort of post traumatic stress in the wake of last summer’s unprecedented storm be making voters leery of a leadership shake up right now? It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to find many shell shocked city residents unmoved by the force of political winds this fall. In fact, Tosado himself set the tone for post-tornado politicking early when he announced, only one day after the storm, that he would be suspending his campaign so that all city residents could come together and focus on the clean up and on healing the community.
In hind sight, this may turn out to be a lot like John McCain’s decision to suspend his 2008 presidential campaign in the wake of the financial twister that struck in mid-September of that year. McCain never recovered and neither will Tosado unless he figures out a way to sling some serious mud at the Mayor without getting any on himself. Unfortunately for Tosado, in “defeating an incumbent 101″ challengers learn that they must define the incumbent as a failure early and often in order to weaken him and stiil have time to shift into positive self promotion mode and distance themselves from the dirt as Election Day nears. Tosado’s chances in this regard may have blown away with the trees across the street from City Hall. If so, his McCain-esque campaign suspension will amount to the strategic equivalent of shooting a dead horse. Of course, his own long service on both the City Council and School Committee limited his ability to credibly blame the Mayor for all manner of ills in the first place.
What about the fact that the next mayor will serve four years instead of two? Could this be yet another impediment to a “change” candidate running in uncertain times? Probably. If uncertain times cause average voters to recoil from uncertainty, a new Mayor that will serve twice as long as the old mayor is a hard sell. Also, because mayors of mid-sized cities like Springfield have quite a bit of institutional support and established relationships with the community’s well connected, Mayor Sarno’s patrons and appointees have twice as much incentive to re-elect him to a four year term.
At the end of the day campaign organization and a motivated get out the vote team will always be very hard to beat in a local election. Mayor Sarno has a well earned reputation for being an extremely hard worker with a disciplined and professional campaign organization. His re-election in a couple of weeks is a very safe bet, which is yet another reason why this race hasn’t raised many eye brows.
Cultists & Capitalists: Strange Bedfellows?
“Cut Government Spending Now!” This ubiquitous clarion call is clear enough, but its lack of precision quickly reveals the naked and narrow motives of its most vigorous cheer leaders. –My apologies to Governor Perry, I mean “yell leaders.”- Without clear and present specification of what government spending should be cut this catchy phrase is little more than a cultist’s chant used to distract and manipulate the enthralled.
The real problem is that the “enthralled” at the Tea Party séance are divided. Most aren’t really against much of the actual spending government does. Many of these folks have morality on their minds, not money. Their real target is a paltry 2 to 4 percent of the federal budget. Their problem is “welfare” by which they mean government aid to folks who don’t deserve it. As a sort of win-win bonus, they’ve been led to believe that lots can be saved by ending legal abortion and resisting the legalization of gay marriage. Others in this crowd, far less numerous than most assume, are the money men. They want to bankroll the roll back of the New Deal and cripple the government’s ability to regulate elite economic actors. For them, the “moral hazards” argument is all well and good, but hardly a primary concern. For them, this is primarily a financial investment in politics.
The thing is that for a broad swath of Americans to get behind real spending cuts you have to sell them on the notion that HUGE cuts are the only way to avoid catastrophe, and you have to specify which government activities will be cut. The religious right has never had much luck arguing that the welfare state was the road to Hell, so they’ve accepted the invitation to join forces with those who argue it’s the “road to serfdom.” What the heck. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, for now.
It boils down to this. Economic conservatives found a way to harness the passion of populistic-libertarians and social conservatives without fully explaining the plan to either group. Now, the Ron Paul faction of the Tea Party is waking up to the reality that they’ve signed on to a religious crusade, while those in the Glenn Beck wing are being awoken to the profane motives of those they thought were leading the charge to “take back America in the name of God!”
Strange bedfellows can be a novelty, but the morning after is a bitch.
Politics for Dummies!
Conservative columnist Marc Theison’s recent defense of Senator Rubio highlights the foolishness of making the personal characteristics of individual politicians and candidates the primary focus of public scrutiny. Rubio is being crucified for “lying” about his family’s flight from Cuba. It happened, but the exact year is apparently in question.
This type of political charge is what I have labeled, somewhat controversially, “Red Meat for Retards,” (R.M.R. for short). It has NOTHING to do with Senator Rubio’s public service, policy positions, or political philosophy. It is solely for the consumption of ignorant voters, whose political loyalties are driven by their emotions, not their intellect. When folks who know better engage in this type of “analysis,” they are acting as partisan tacticians or ratings grabbing “infotainers,” not as honest brokers.
The so-called “character” issue is actually the lowest level of relevant critical analysis. Its primacy in the media and in election campaigns is really quite simple to explain. This is the only level of analysis that the broad electorate can understand rationally. Debate about policy issues and/or ideas is simply not of interest to the general public, and as such, is not something the general public can critically understand. So why are average voters so easy to distract? That question is likely above my pay grade, but I can tell you from personal experience that any efforts to give such voters a reality check, results in charges of elitism and/or deeply personal rage at the thought of subordinating “values” like character in the determination of “truth.”
Political scientists, however, have long understood the relationship between an individual’s attribution of cause and effect in government and politics and that individual’s understanding of the political system.(1) Simply put, the more one blames and praises individuals in politics for policy consequences, the less they understand about the real workings of politics and our political system. Real life politics and public policy are far too complex to be reduced to a “good guys versus bad guys” narrative. A real understanding requires knowledge of the inter-relationships of many ideas, institutions, and interests. If you think a president or a party are to blame for economic woes or are responsible for economic success, for example, then you probably don’t really understand how politics or economics really work. If you think the “character” of a leader or party are even discernable by the public, never mind determinative of performance, then you are no doubt the patsy of political elites one way or the other. If your most sophisticated political opinion is something like, “throw the bums out,” you are probably not a good “go to” guy for the solutions to complex public problems.
It is at this intellectually immature level that political campaigns are waged. The folks who know what they are talking about don’t need campaigns at all, so the focus on the ignorant voter is actually a very rational strategy for candidates and parties, as long as the goal is understood solely in terms of electoral victory. Political scientists and commentators who lament the development of the so-called “permanent campaign,”(2) however, see the rationality of this electoral strategy as a very negative drag on actually policy formation, enactment, and implementation (i.e. governing).
1. See, Gomez, Brad T. & Matthew Wilson, Political Sophistication and Economic Voting in the American Electorate: A Theory of Heterogeneous Attribution. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 4, Oct., 2001
2. Ornstein, Norman, & Thomas Mann, The Permanent Campaign and Its Future. (Washington DC: AIE & Brookings, 2000).