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Change For Change’s Sake


There are many, many ironies in the Brownthusiam, but the most notable is the fact that this suburban father with a rather blandly centrist voting record has become the target of apocalyptic rhetoric from both sides. Really, the question is whether or not he has decent judgment. His record suggests that he’s good at making fine distinctions and voting in a pragmatic, constituency-focused manner [bold mine-DL]. I’d prefer a more cost-conscious legislator myself, but he certainly doesn’t come across as a nihilist bent on the destruction of government.

It seems to me that if Brown votes in a “pragmatic, constituency-focused manner,” that helps to explain the apparent contradiction in his position on health care. Brown’s resistance to a federal health care bill seems to come from his defense of the system Massachusetts already has. Ignoring the flaws in MassCare while railing against the same flaws in federal legislation appears cynical and opportunistic, and maybe it is, but it is opportunism that defends a state government measure that already exists against possible federal changes to it. I don’t think this counts as belief in “competitive federalism,” especially when Brown calls on other states to imitate Massachusetts’ example, but I do think it is a classic expression of an “I’ve got mine” sentiment. Were someone like Brown in a poorer state that did not already have some form of universal coverage, his positions would be reversed: he would want the wealthier states to pay for his state’s coverage, and he would eagerly support a federal bill. One could claim that this makes him a good representative of his state. One could just as easily say that it proves that he is a cipher and goes along with whatever happens to popular back home.

Brown’s opposition is also a little bit like the reflexive hostility to any health care legislation among elderly voters on Medicare. For those who already have coverage provided in one way or another through government mandates or subsidies, new federal health care legislation appears to be more of threat than a benefit. This leads me to conclude that Brown espouses conservatism that is simply a defense of the status quo. It is not a conservatism particularly concerned about federalism or decentralization of power, and for those who would like to keep things as they are federalism and decentralization might seem to be dangerous, frightening things. I suppose Brown does exhibit something of an attachment to the interests of his state, which people call narrow-minded provincialism when it gets in their way and which they call localism when it does not affect them.

Like Reihan, I find the rhetoric surrounding this election to be wildly out of proportion. It occurred to me this morning that all these articles prophesying possible doom for Obama and his agenda are probably Coakley’s last, best chance of salvaging a win from the ruins of her pathetic campaign. Massachusetts voters like Obama overwhelmingly, and at least a large plurality of them support his agenda. Obviously, many voters are also discontented with Boston and Washington establishments and looking to make a statement against both, but if enough voters believe that this special election is a do-or-die moment for Obama and his agenda that could generate a late surge of support for Coakley that the polls would never have been able to detect. Obama foes are eager to treat this election as tremendously significant, but by emphasizing how meaningful it is they may have woken up and provoked the other party’s voters in a state where the other party has a huge advantage in registration.

This election has made me think more about political mandates. It is commonplace to say that the victorious party always overreaches and that it is usually mistaken if it believes that it received a mandate for its entire agenda. This is true as far as it goes, but if there is hardly ever a mandate for any party’s agenda it is also difficult to see how there could be meaningful electoral repudiations of any party’s agenda. If voters were doing little more than responding to the financial crisis and recession in 2008, they are doing little more than reacting to high unemployment now.

If 2008 did not represent some meaningful approval and affirmation of what the Democrats proposed to do by a majority of voters, what substance do protest votes in 2010 elections have? It is a cliche to say that elections have consequences, but they do. Something that must be more than a little frustrating for Democrats right now is that Obama and the leadership in Congress are doing pretty much exactly what they said they would do. We are now being told in effect that the majority is about to be punished for keeping their election promises, and the punishment is supposed to be coming from one of their most reliable core areas. It is as if voters in Alabama or Wyoming turned against Bush’s marginal tax cuts after having elected him because he promised to cut taxes.

The easy analysis of what is happening is to say that “even in deep-blue Massachusetts people are rejecting Obama’s agenda,” but none of this makes any sense. I don’t say this because I have any sympathy for Obama’s domestic agenda, but because I don’t think there is any way to understand this response by voters in a heavily Democratic state except as an expression of pure anti-incumbency sentiment and a desire simply to shake things up. After years of mocking Obama’s signature campaign slogans, Republicans have found that their best path back to power is exploiting the desire to change for change’s sake.

Assuming that Brown will win today, the lesson has to be that no winning party should ever attempt to deliver on its promises, and under no circumstances should it follow through and actually deliver promised legislation. I say this as someone who would be happy to see the current health care legislation fail.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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