Hugs for Democrats

Dems look downtrodden in the face of the Scott Brown juggernaut

When I see the politically humbled I offer comfort. When I see the politically downtrodden I rush to bring hope. When I see the politically bullied I want to envelope them in warmth. Give me your tired of electoral defeat, your poor unable to raise campaign money, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free of misrule.

Democratic Party of Massachusetts come over here and get a hug.

Why offer balm to the Democrats in a state in which they hold every statewide office, dominate the state Legislature, and command almost the entire congressional delegation? Because the one major office they do not hold is the Brown seat, and they despair of defeating its occupant in 2012.

It has really become a sad spectacle with prominent Democrats tiptoeing around, others outright announcing their unavailability, and even minor pretenders poking their heads back into the hole like Punxsutawney Phil after failing to see his shadow. Salon has run a story on Senator Scott Brown titled “The Unbeatable Republican?” David Bernstein posted an entry on his Boston Phoenix “Talking Politics” blog titled “Scotto Has the Love” trumpeting the senator’s popularity. And the money this guy can raise!

But it gets worse, so much worse. Brown attended the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, an event dreaded by humor-impaired Democrats, and was actually funny. Uproariously funny. Irish funny.

Any Massachusetts Democrat can offer an exact parallel to a race against our rock star senator: 1994, Governor Bill Weld against overmatched state rep. Mark Roosevelt. It was Muhammad Ali vs. Floyd Patterson, USA vs. Grenada.

So let me see what I can do to provide a reason to dream. First let’s acknowledge that the money deficit is substantial and so is Senator Brown’s current standing with the electorate. But unusual things happen in politics – ask Governor Tom Reilly or Senator Martha Coakley. They were the victims of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call “black swan opportunities” – highly unlikely events that cannot be foreseen but have a huge impact. Taleb stresses that we don’t really understand our world anywhere near as well as we think we do and we constantly overestimate what we think we know while failing to consider the limits of our knowledge. It’s conventional wisdom. Today we can all accurately diagnose why Brown defeated Coakley in 2010, but then – wow, we never saw it coming.

Here’s a good example. In March 2009 a poll of Massachusetts voters asked which politician voters would prefer should Senator Ted Kennedy vacate his Senate seat. Seventeen prominent figures were named. Scott Brown was not one of them. Brown was not in a much better position as late as January 5, 2010, when a Rasmussen Poll came out showing him only nine points behind Coakley. Then, as I noted shortly thereafter in “Brown boom or Brown bubble?” all hell broke loose. A subsequent study by Boston University’s College of Communication showed that from January 6 to Election Day Brown’s coverage by the media spiked and was overwhelmingly favorable, while Coakley’s coverage collapsed. The obscure state senator from Wrentham stormed to victory.

Brown’s skillful navigation of the realities of office holding as a Massachusetts Republican will become more difficult for him as reelection in a presidential year approaches. The House Republican budget proposal, a delight to the Wall Street Journal and brutal to the vulnerable, is already dominating the debate about the role of government. It won’t play in Massachusetts. And as Eileen McNamara wrote in Boston magazine, criticizing the senator’s ability to mythologize himself: “So successfully has Brown remade himself that he sees no contradiction between his mother’s reliance on federal assistance and his support for a political agenda to dismantle the very safety net that put that “government-issue cheese” in his family’s refrigerator.” Brown is no longer the hero of the Tea Party and the national Republican Party is an anchor (do the Democrats dare fantasize of Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich atop the GOP ticket?).

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
So as the basketball coach Bobby Knight would say, someone has to be in position to be in position here. A meaningful Democrat has to go after that nomination. It will look like Weld vs. Roosevelt for a long time, and perhaps right through Election Day. But sometime, no one can say when, a poll might show the Democrat within ten points of Senator Brown. And then all hell will break loose.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.