What does the Massachusetts election mean? It means America is in play again. The 2008 election settled nothing, not even for a while. Our national politics are reflecting what appears to be going on geologically, on the bottom of the oceans and beneath the crust of the Earth: the tectonic plates are moving.
America never stops moving now.
Massachusetts said, “Yes, we want change, but the change we want is not the change that has been delivered by the Democratic administration and the Democratic Congress. So we will turn elsewhere.”
We are in a postromantic political era. They hire you and fire you, nothing personal. Family connection, personal charm, old traditions, fealty to party, all are nice and have their place, but right now we are immersed in crisis, and we vote on policies that affect our lives.
It is not the end of something so much as the beginning of something. Ted Kennedy took his era with him. But what has begun is something new and potentially promising.
President Obama carried Massachusetts by 26 points on Nov. 4, 2008. Fifteen months later, on Jan. 19, 2010, the eve of the first anniversary of his inauguration, his party’s candidate lost Massachusetts by five points. That’s a 31-point shift. Mr. Obama won Virginia by six points in 2008. A year later, on Nov. 2, 2009, his party’s candidate for governor lost by 18 points—a 25 point shift. Mr. Obama won New Jersey in 2008 by 16 points. In 2009 his party’s incumbent governor lost re-election by four points—a 20-point shift.
In each race, the president’s party lost independent voters, who in 2008 voted like Democrats and in 2010 voted like Republicans.
Is it a backlash? It seems cooler than that, a considered and considerable rejection that appears to be signaling a conservative resurgence based on issues and policies, most obviously opposition to increased government spending, fear of higher taxes, and rejection of the idea that expansion of government can or will solve our economic challenges.
And it’s taking place within a particular context.
Speaking broadly: In the 2006 and 2008 elections, and at some point during the past decade, the ancestral war between Democrats and the Republicans began to take on a new look. If you were a normal human sitting at home having a beer and watching national politics peripherally, as normal people do until they focus on an election, chances are pretty good you came to see the two major parties not as the Dems versus the Reps, or the blue versus the bed, but as the Nuts versus the Creeps. The Nuts were for high spending and taxing and the expansion of government no matter what. The Creeps were hypocrites who talked one thing and did another, who went along on the spending spree while lecturing on fiscal solvency.
In 2008, the voters went for Mr. Obama thinking he was not a Nut but a cool and sober moderate of the center-left sort. In 2009 and 2010, they looked at his general governing attitudes as reflected in his preoccupations—health care, cap and trade—and their hidden, potential and obvious costs, and thought, “Uh-oh, he’s a Nut!”
Which meant they were left with the Creeps.
But the Republican candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, and now Scott Brown in Massachusetts, did something amazing. They played the part of the Creep very badly! They put themselves forward as serious about spending, as independent, not narrowly partisan. Mr. Brown rarely mentioned he was a Republican, and didn’t even mention the party in his victory speech. Importantly, their concerns were on the same page as the voters’. They focused on the relationship between spending and taxing, worried about debt and deficits, were moderate in their approach to social issues. They didn’t have wedge issues, they had issues.
The contest between the Nuts and the Creeps may be ending. The Nuts just got handed three big losses, and will have to have a meeting in Washington to discuss whether they’ve gotten too nutty. But the Creeps have kind of had their meetings—in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. And what seems to be emerging from that is a new and nonsnarling Republicanism. It may be true—and they will demonstrate in time if it is true—that they have learned from past defeats, absorbed the lessons, reconsidered the meaning of politics. Maybe in time it will be said of this generation of Republicans what André Malraux said to Whittaker Chambers after reading his memoir, “Witness”: “You did not come back from hell with empty hands.”
For Mr. Brown now, everything depends on execution. He made the Olympics. Now he has to do the swan dive, with a billion people watching. And then he has to do it again.
More Peggy Noonan
He needs to serve the country the way he campaigned for votes—earnest, open, not beholden to interest or party. And he needs to avoid the Descent of the Congressional Vampires, who’ll attempt to claim his victory as their own and suck from his neck until he’s a pale and lifeless husk. Not to understate. But they’ll want him fund-raising and speaking all over the country, not knowing or perhaps caring that the best work he can do for his party is succeeding in the eyes of his constituents, who couldn’t care less about the fortunes of the GOP. He needs to avoid the vampires in the nicest possible way. Maybe he should carry a little cross deep inside his breast pocket so they retreat without knowing why: “I tried to get him to Boca for the donor retreat but some invisible force stopped me! I ran backwards and slipped on the shiny marble floor! Mah hip is out! “
In a telephone conversation Wednesday night, Mr. Brown spoke of what’s ahead. The conversation turned to the movie “The Candidate,” to the moment Robert Redford wins the election and takes a top strategist aside to ask: “What do we do now?”
Mr. Brown laughed: “I know what I want to do: Go down there and be a good person, a good and competent senator. I have huge shoes to fill, the legacy is just overwhelming. I’m a consensus builder. . . . I can disagree in the daytime and have a coffee or beer later on. Everyone’s welcome to their opinion.”
He said he thought the president “inherited a lot of problems,” that “he’s doing a great job with North Korea, a nice job with Afghanistan.” A centerpiece of Mr. Brown’s campaign was opposition to the president’s health-care plan, but he stressed that he opposes high spending wherever it comes from. “I’ve criticized President Bush for his failure to use his veto pen. There’s plenty of blame to go around. The question is how to solve problems. It’s not bailouts. What made America great? Free markets, free enterprise, manufacturing, job creation. That’s how we’re gonna do it, not by enlarging government.”
The next morning he took the 7 a.m. shuttle from Boston to Washington for his first trip to the Capitol. On the plane, after they took off, the pilot came on and said, “Senator Brown is on board, on his way to Washington.” The plane erupted in applause.
That’s a good way to begin. It reminded me of 12 months before, on the shuttle to Washington, with a plane full of people on their way to the inauguration of Barack Obama. The pilot spoke of it, and the plane erupted in cheers.
That feels like another era. Because America keeps moving, the plates keep shifting, and execution is everything. Everything.