I’ve lived in Massachusetts almost my entire life. So, like everyone else, I was surprised by last night’s stunning election results. To think, in Massachusetts we elected a Republican to serve out the rest of Ted Kennedy’s term. It’s one of the few times where I would say it’s possible that a dead man is actually rolling in his grave.
The explanations – coming mostly from out-of-staters – are already coming in. Coakley was a bad candidate. Brown worked hard and showed he wanted it more. It’s the economy. These are all reasonable, and probably true, but I think they miss what the election was really all about.
Here are the three things the Massachusetts election was really all about.
1. It’s health care, stupid
I’ve been blogging about this for months and months and months and months. You don’t mess with people health benefits. Benefits professionals know that if you try to make even minor changes to health benefits, you can generate a whole lot of resistance. You would think people in politics would know this. But they have made it very clear: they don’t.
Here’s what I mean. The President keeps saying that if you like your current coverage you can keep it, but he’s also keeps saying we need to transform American health care and finally achieve what presidents since Truman and Teddy Roosevelt tried to do. Which one is it? If you see all the backroom dealings and trillion dollar price tags, smart people begin to think something big and important is happening that is going to affect them whether they like it or not. And they suspect they’re not being told the whole truth. It makes people very anxious, and anxious people don’t vote for incumbents.
Worse, you would be hard pressed to find anyone other than policy wonks who could coherently explain what the health care reform is. And yet, Coakley, the Democratic Party, and the President tried to make this election all about this poorly understood and badly explained health care reform. To the extent they had generated already a huge amount of anxiety around health care, and then told voters it was up to them to seal the deal and make it a reality, well, no one should be surprised this didn’t go well.
As James Carville might put it, it’s health care, stupid.
2. Massachusetts isn’t an emerging conservative state
Massachusetts remains one of the most progressive states in the country. There is little or no organized Republican party here, and the constellation of social issues that seem to motivate out-of-state conservatives are extremely unpopular here. Brown said some dumb things about these social issues over the years (well, to be fair, he’s said dumb things about a lot of issues) but he did not run as anything like a social conservative. In other states, he would have had to run as a Democrat or Independent.
People who misread this election as suggesting that Massachusetts is turning to the right on social issues are badly mistaken. I already see Republicans doing this, and they are as out of touch with Massachusetts voters on this point as Coakley was with them on health care.
3. The Kennedys are gone
There was a time in this state where the Kennedys were almost royalty. If they wanted something done, it would get done. But the generation of people who saw the Kennedys in this light is fading from view, and the younger generation doesn’t get what all the fuss is about.
And yet, Coakley ran as Kennedy 2.0. She had the overt blessing of the Kennedy family, including having Ted’s widow run TV ads for her. National Democrats, including the President, said her election was about realizing Ted Kennedy’s life’s work. Coakley even looks, vaguely, like a Kennedy. She talks with the strange accent no one from Massachusetts not named Kennedy actually has.
But it didn’t mean much to voters. In fact, it probably had the opposite effect. One of Coakley’s problems in the campaign is that she seemed to be acting as if she were entitled to be elected. Wrapping herself in the Kennedy mantle was, if anything, confirmation of that suspicion. The age of the Kennedys in Massachusetts is over.
And so, the bottom line is this. Massachusetts remains a one-party state that just had a one-issue election, health care. Read more into it at your peril.
*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*