Brownout

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most self-destructive moments in recent American political history, though it didn’t seem that way at the time. It was a moment where a man seemed to have it all, only to quickly lose it. It was a moment where a state made a mistake without realizing it, only to later rectify that mistake in the grandest way possible.

On January 19, 2010, state Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, defeated then-Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, to win a special election to complete the remainder of the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s term. At the time, Brown’s victory was generally seen as a right-wing attempt to thwart the passage of health-care reform. That was only part of the story.

As a Massachusetts resident who bore witness to Brown’s come-from-behind win in 2009-2010, it was clear that his victory was fueled by a combination of right-leaning independents who indeed wanted to stop the passage of the Affordable Care Act and more centrist voters who actually (if naively) believed that Brown would be a middle-of-the-road Republican and not a wingnut. Typical of this mentality was a Bay Stater who wrote the following to Andrew Sullivan days before the election:

I’m a split-the-ballot kind of guy. I don’t think the dominance of the political system by one party is ever good for the country. Too much changes too quickly and without the necessary compromises to slow the pace and make it more realistic. We all agree that the GOP is a mess. But we also all agree that we need a stronger GOP. And despite the rhetoric, I can’t think of a better candidate to help than Scott Brown. He’s not perfect, but if he thinks he can go along with the national GOP and keep the seat in the next election, he’s going to be out of a job. In voting for him, I hope he’ll moderate that party. And that’s what’s funny to me about the rush of support he’s getting from the Right. If a Republican from Massachusetts isn’t a RINO to them, I don’t know who is. It also helps that Brown has already voted for a health care plan with a public option. So to someone like [Michelle] Malkin who was ready to toss away a Congressional seat in [New York] for “purity”, I now laugh at their support of Brown.

My only hesitation in voting for Brown is how that vote will be spun by the mediots in the Beltway. Let me say emphatically that my vote for Brown isn’t a vote against Obama. It’s a vote against the Democratic Party, and hacks like Coakley, but also a vote to help moderate the GOP. One more New England Republican is necessary. Of all the places the GOP might find it’s path again I hope it’s from where it was born.

Of course, those who voted for Brown because they believed his lines about an independent-minded, “Scott Brown Republican” received a rude awakening; Brown largely voted in lockstep with the national GOP and especially disgraced himself on energy policy, choosing to kiss David Koch’s wrinkled rear end instead of continuing the work he did as a state senator to protect the atmosphere for future generations.

Brown’s dereliction of duty on climate—including his sickening June 2010 and April 2011 votes to strip the EPA of its authority to curb carbon pollution—earned a stern rebuke from the League of Women Voters and the Boston Globe editorial page, among other entities. The Globe noted:

As a state senator in Massachusetts, Scott Brown voted for a regional pact to ratchet down power companies’ carbon dioxide emissions. But as a US senator in Washington, Brown last week voted to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the authority to regulate any greenhouse gases. This is not the first time Brown has done a Jekyll-Hyde switch between Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill — in 2006 he voted for Mitt Romney’s health care plan, only to oppose the national version of it in 2010. But the turnaround on greenhouse gases is especially disappointing to any Massachusetts voters who thought they saw in Brown a conservative on fiscal issues who was also a conservationist when it comes to protecting the environment.

Instead, Brown has marched in lockstep on this issue with fellow Republicans who are against government regulation across the board. Many congressional Republicans do not even acknowledge that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and need to be curbed. Clearly, Brown did not share that view when he voted in favor of Massachusetts’ participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which requires utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or face financial penalties…

Voting to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases is a favor to Big Oil and Big Coal and the states where they are dominant, not to Massachusetts clean-energy firms struggling to compete with companies in Europe and Asia. When Brown voted for the regional pact on utility emissions in 2008, he said, “Passing this legislation is an important step . . . towards improving our environment.’’ He was right then, and wrong now.

Brown made it clear that those who gave a damn about climate change specifically, or responsible government generally, shouldn’t bother voting for him the next time around. Massachusetts voters heard that message loud and clear, and responded by throwing him out of office and replacing him with Elizabeth Warren in November 2012 after Brown ran a nasty, race-baiting campaign against the Democrat.

The funny thing is, had Brown legislated as an old-school moderate New England Republican (think Senators Edward Brooke, John Chafee, Jim Jeffords and Robert Stafford), he might have been able to beat Warren. Bay State voters clearly have no problem electing and re-electing non-wingnut Republicans, as Brooke and former Governor William Weld proved. However, they won’t vote for crackpots, which is what Brown revealed himself to be.

After Brown was whipped by Warren, he briefly hinted at running for the Senate seat John Kerry vacated in early-2013 before deciding to become a Fox News pundit instead. Brown later moved to New Hampshire and launched an ill-fated effort 2014 effort to unseat Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Today, Brown’s back at Fox, perhaps privately lamenting what could have been.

To quote the famous Marlon Brando line, Brown could have been a contender. He could have single-handedly resurrected the sort of non-wingnut Republicanism that used to flourish in the Northeast. He could have debunked everything Keith Olbermann said about him the night before he beat Martha Coakley, instead of validating the former MSNBC host’s words.

Think about it. Instead of wasting time feuding with Olbermann’s then-colleague Rachel Maddow, Brown could have pushed back against the deranged direction of his party, urging the GOP to once again become competitive in blue and purple states by actually embracing policies that would benefit non-billionaires. Had he continued to demonstrate the climate leadership he showed as a state senator, he could have become the Republican equivalent of Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a passionate advocate of effective solutions to the problem of carbon pollution. Brown could have picked up the mantle of climate courage that John McCain threw away, demonstrating to the country that not every Republican marched in lockstep with Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe on this critical issue.

Instead, he blew it.

Speaking of (supposedly) blowing it, let us bury once and for all the conventional wisdom that Martha Coakley essentially let Scott Brown defeat her. Considering the momentum Brown built up in the days prior to the election, nothing was going to stop him, unfortunately. Two years ago, University of Massachusetts-Boston Professor Maurice Cunningham debunked the notion that Coakley botched her campaign:

If there is one unassailable bit of conventional wisdom among Democrats in this state it is that Martha Coakley blew the special senate election against Scott Brown in 2010 with her gaffe prone campaign. It is such a verity that the [Attorney General] herself, campaigning for governor, goes about the state in sack cloth chanting mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The only problem with that narrative is that it is wrong. Martha’s Mistakes didn’t matter…

So what were more important factors than Coakley’s miscues? I recently offered one theory based on a paper by my [University of Massachusetts-Boston] colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen that the poor performance of the economy under President Obama and the Democrats played a role. A commenter scolded me for that as presenting “revisionist history” willing to discount Coakley’s “ham-fisted campaign.” Another study by political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart placed the defeat at the door of a demobilization of working poor Democrats, especially minority voters – but given their economic conditions in January 2010, why would they rally to the cause? A study by Boston University’s College of Communications “Project for Excellence in Journalism” showed that after [a January 2010] Rasmussen poll shook up the race, coverage of Brown turned overwhelmingly positive, and that of Coakley negative.

Coakley was criticized for supposedly ultra-negative campaign ads, although the core message of the ads—that Brown would be nothing more than a lackey for the far-right GOP—was certainly true. It was also true that Brown failed miserably at filling Ted Kennedy’s shoes, despite wrapping himself in the imagery of Kennedy’s brother at the outset of his campaign. As then-Boston Phoenix writer David Bernstein put it:

In the end, Scott Brown was just too small to be a US Senator from Massachusetts…Massachusetts expects their Senators to be big figures. National figures. People who have purpose and stature.

Elizabeth Warren, whether you like everything she has to say, and whether she ends up being a good Senator, surely qualifies. You know what issues and passions drive her; you sense that she wants to shape the Commonwealth and the country…

Brown is small, and grew smaller as the campaign progressed.

After some $30 million of ads, and all the media and debates, can you say why Brown wants six years in the Senate?

I know where he stands on a few issues. I know he doesn’t want to raise any kind of taxes, on any person or company. I’ve heard him talk about independence and moderation and bipartisanship, but I have no idea to what end or with what aim.

Whenever I, and others across the state, looked to Brown for those answers, we instead saw him sneer at “Professor” Warren; demand that her employers prove that she had earned her credentials honestly; allow and encourage offensive racist and misogynistic taunting; and purport that his cohabitation with a wife and daughters exempts him from answering serious policy questions about the health and financial well-being of women.

Then we saw him slink away from the final televised debate.

Scott Brown is not a bad guy. And a majority of Massachusetts residents feels that he is a good Senator.

But in his campaign, he was small. Much too small. And ultimately, that is why Massachusetts replaced him for someone bigger.

Two years after Brown’s loss, Charlie Baker defeated Coakley to become the newest governor of the Commonwealth. In his campaign, and in his inaugural address, he also held out the promise of bipartisanship, and the promise that he would bring back the days of non-wingnut Republicanism in the Northeast. Will he fail as miserably as Brown did? We don’t know yet…but we do know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

As for Brown, one wonders how he’ll mark the fifth anniversary of the golden moment he later tarnished. If he’s a humble man, he’ll mark it with tears. Something tells me he’s not a humble man. Something tells me that turned out to be his problem.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.