Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why did Martha Coakley lose?

There's a narrative that Massachusetts is some kind of liberal bastion, full of neo-hippies who take great offense to American pastimes like eating meat, shooting guns and the internal combustion engine. While it's true that you're less likely to get harassed for disliking any of those three things in this state, we don't fit the stereotype. And anyway: meat, guns and cars are more social issues than philosophical ones, and last week's election was more philosophical than social.

That said, why did Scott Brown's philosophy win? Well, it didn't. Sure, he won the election fair and square, but he won it by calling for change, attacking incumbents in general, and by avoiding mentioning the fact that he's a Republican at all costs. Believe me, I live here, and I watched the commercials, listened to the speeches, watched the debates. While you're hearing a lot of Republican bellowing that this election was a repudiation of health care, the income tax, gay marriage, abortion rights, etc., the fact is that those issues were rarely mentioned during the campaign. Senator-Designate Brown might be talking about them now—and certainly the Republican pundits are—but that's not what Massachusetts voters had on their minds.

It was more about what Martha Coakley said—or failed to say—during the campaign. Martha Coakley was a terrible candidate who barely campaigned. She was scarcely visible, she ran very few TV spots, and made about twenty public campaign appearances compared to Scott Brown's 63. It's naïve to suggest that anyone can get elected in this state just by being a Democrat. You still have to work for your seat, which is something Coakley failed to do. Brown is a good politician but a bad fit for Massachusetts. Martha Coakley is a bad politician who—let's face it—would probably have been a bad fit for Massachusetts, too. Granted, she would have been better, since her vote in the Senate would have meant that health care legislation could be passed, as opposed to Scott Brown's campaign promise that he'd be the 41st vote against health care in the Senate. This electrified his supporters, who oppose health care. Coakley, on the other hand, would have been an obvious supporter of health care, and she even mentioned this now and again. And that was the problem: she only mentioned it now and again. She barely campaigned, and even took a vacation during her campaign. A vacation! Did she want this job or not?!?

When asked why she wasn't hitting the pavement campaigning, Coakley said, "You mean shaking hands outside Fenway? In the snow?" Hell YES that's what it means. A candidate who doesn't reach out to the voters is in trouble. Ted Kennedy treated every single election of his as if he were twenty points behind at any given moment. He did not take his seat for granted. Coakley did, and we're paying the price.

You hear a lot about how this is a national referendum on Barack Obama. This is just wishful conservative thinking. Barack Obama is still very popular in this state, as is health care and the stimulus. "Federal spending" might be an issue with traction if those who complain about it would ever say what they wanted to cut. The voters of Massachusetts did not view this election through the lens of the national Republican party, as much as they'd like the country to think that we did.

Look, I'm a true believer in health care. I believe that the government can and should be a force to help us all. I know that the Republican party is not interested in working to allow the government to do anything except cut taxes as close to zero as possible, and to slash all social programs back to the way things were in the 1830s, if not earlier. When the Coakley campaign finally realized it was in trouble, only then did it start campaigning. I volunteered that day, offering to drive people to the polls (though it turned out I needed only to drive one person there) and holding Coakley signs outside of polling places. I'd sent out emails and Facebook posts to friends and enemies in Massachusetts, reminding them how important it is to vote for Coakley this time. I had a problem when doing this, though. I couldn't honestly ask people to vote for Coakley, since I wasn't doing that, myself. Sure, I cast my vote for Coakley and asked others to do so, too, but I wanted everyone to do it to keep health care alive, and to prevent Congress from getting bogged down for another two (or more) years due to Republican obstruction. While that's enough of an argument to get me to the polls (as well as to get most of my friends there, too, thanks very much to them,) it's not enough to generate the enthusiasm needed to drive many voters to vote. That's the candidate's job: she's got to ask the voters to vote for her, and she didn't do it. And now we're paying the price.

Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, the popular and powerful Massachusetts congressman, once told a story about Election Day. As he was leaving his house he ran into his next-door neighbor whom he'd known for most of his life. They exchanged pleasantries, and O'Neill said, "Don't forget to vote!" His neighbor said, "Well, Tom, I don't know if I'm going to vote this time." O'Neill was stunned. "What! But you've known me all my life! We agree on nearly everything! Why on earth would you not vote for me?" The neighbor replied, "Well, you haven't asked me to yet."

That's what it comes down to. True believers like myself (and maybe you, too,) will vote every time, no matter what. But most people want the candidates to tell them that they want to get the votes. Most people want to see their candidates in public, pressing the flesh, speaking, kissing babies if they have to. This is politics 101; everyone who runs for office has to do it. How Martha Coakley missed that message is beyond me. Even in a heavily Democratic state like Massachusetts, you have to ask. Ted Kennedy, who never had a close election in his life, always asked voters for their support, even if the pollsters were telling him he needn't bother. You're going to hear the media try to spin this into a national narrative, that it's a repudiation of health care, it's anti-incumbent fever, it's the end of the Kennedy legacy—whatever. The truth, as usual, is not as exciting. Martha Coakley took the voters for granted, so many of them stayed home, and now Massachusetts has a senator who's pointedly out of touch with the majority of his constituents. Period.

Running a campaign is like driving a car: if you don't watch where you're going at all times, you're probably going to crash.

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