How did Scott Brown become the "change" candidate in Massachusetts?

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Jan. 17 2010 8:57 PM

The Inversion

How did Scott Brown become the "change" candidate in Massachusetts?

BOSTON—At a rally here on Sunday, President Obama told Massachusetts voters that Democratic senatorial candidate Martha Coakley would move the country forward, while her opponent, Republican Scott Brown, would move it backward. But Obama's goal, too, was to turn back time—just not as far. He wanted to go back to, say, November 2008, when Democrats were the "change" candidates, populist anger was directed at Republicans, and voters blamed another president not on the ballot for their problems.

That's one reason the Massachusetts special election is making Democrats nauseated: It's turning their world upside down. With the special election 48 hours away, the race between Coakley and Brown has in many ways become an inversion of the election that won Obama the White House.

In 2008, the Democratic candidate had recently been a no-name state senator with a thin record but good stage presence. In 2010, Scott Brown holds that mantle. The presidential election featured an "establishment" Republican against a "change" Democrat. In this senatorial election, Martha Coakley wears the "establishment" label while Brown gets to claim he'd upend the state's Democratic dominance. John McCain made himself sound out of touch by admitting he didn't use e-mail. Coakley did the same by seemingly scoffing at the notion of shaking hands outside Fenway Park, then by suggesting Red Sox legend Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan. (It was a joke, she now says.) Obama in 2008 raised untold funds from grass-roots giving. This year, Brown was the first to use the online "money bomb" technique and last week raised a reported $1 million a day. In '08, the Democrat was a marvel on the stump, while the Republican was hard to watch. The opposite is true in 2010.

This narrative isn't especially fair—just as it wasn't in 2008. But only now are the Democrats realizing the box they've been squeezed into.

So Democrats tried Sunday to reverse the reversal. Step No. 1 was reminding voters of who is responsible for the mess we're in. "We have had one year to make up for eight," Obama told the crowd of 1,500 at Northeastern University. (A couple thousand more watched from a separate room.) "It hasn't been quick, it hasn't been easy. But we've begun to deliver on the change you voted for." Coakley drove home the theme at a rally earlier that day in Hyannis—yes, that Hyannis—where she warned against the "the Bush/Cheney failed policies" that would return if Brown were elected.

Step No. 2 was to get angry, if only to prove that Republicans don't have a monopoly on rage. This doesn't appear easy for Coakley, but her supporters were up to the task. "Guess what: I'm pretty damn angry myself," said Rep. Michael Capuano, who lost the primary to Coakley. "I'm angry because we don't have health care for all. I'm angry because we're stuck in wars all around this world. I'm angry because every child doesn't have an equal opportunity in education." John Kerry, too, was feeling unusually emotional: "Yes, we feel angry. All of us!"

Step No. 3 was to poke holes in the image Brown has created for himself: the independent, hard-working, middle-class, truck-driving guy who also happens to be dashing and well-spoken. Coakley reminded voters that she supports the proposed tax on banks to help repay taxpayers' bailout money, while Brown opposes it. Her campaign pounded the message that Brown doesn't give his campaign workers health care. In his speech, Obama kept coming back to Brown's truck. "You better check under the hood," was one refrain. "Forget the truck," he said. "Anybody can buy a truck." "He decided to park his truck on Wall Street," he later quipped. "I'd think long and hard about getting in that truck of Martha Coakley's opponent," he said. "It might not be going where you want to go."

Whatever the accuracy of Brown's self-portrait—his mother was once on welfare, yet he owns five properties—Democrats are late in countering it. But more important, they're late in realizing that populist anger would be targeted not at Republicans but at them. Now they know. "Voters want to send a message," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who might have been a strong candidate to succeed his father in the Senate but for the inconvenient fact that he already represents Rhode Island in the House. "They want to show their anger in some way. The best way to do that is a protest vote." Democrats need to remind people that they're not the bad guys: "People have forgotten we were on the Titanic a year ago, and we were sinking, and everyone was gonna die."

Coupled with that amnesia is shortsightedness about what a vote for Brown means, said state Sen. Robert O'Leary, who represents Cape Cod. If people knew electing Brown would create more gridlock—for health care and the rest of Obama's agenda—they might vote differently. "I don't think people are fully conscious of the implications," he said.  U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt said Democrats have done a poor job of helping voters "connect the dots" between Bush and Brown and the poor economy. Now Coakley, the attorney general from Massachusetts, is somehow seen as representing the nation's sorry state. "We failed, Congress failed, the president failed, I failed, we failed," he said. That's very honest, I said. "Why not be honest?" he said. "It might get us somewhere."

It's the loser's refrain on election night: If only voters knew what they were doing, we woulda won. That Massachusetts Democrats are already using this line, a full two days before the election, means either that recriminations have already begun—or that they've realized their own shortcomings just in time to correct them.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.