Next week in Massachusetts, a special election to fill the Senate seat of the departed Ted Kennedy will take place. The Republican candidate Scott Brown has overcome a huge 30-point deficit in the polls to pull within two points of Democrat Martha Coakley, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. With less than a week to go before the election, the candidates took the stage for a last debate.
The physical contrast was striking. A fit and chiseled Brown (he once posed in the buff for Cosmopolitan) looked ready for action. Though appearing pale and almost lethargic, Coakley interrupted Brown on issues she felt played to her advantage, mainly abortion. This could be a mistake. As Creigh Deeds found out in Virginia, the social issues seem to have taken a back seat to the economy. On his short side, Brown didn't have much to offer on the economic side except tax cuts and stopping Obamacare as the 41st Republican Senator. For Republicans, that may be enough, but will it convince the 50 percent of Massachusetts voters who call themselves Independents?
Also on stage was third party candidate Joe Kennedy (no relation to Ted), who was a pretty much a one trick pony devoted to stopping spending. When moderator David Gergen drew him out as to how to cut spending, Kennedy took the bait and said he'd go after entitlements like Medicare and social security. After this political self-immolation, Gergen (looking rather old himself — I guess he needs to get back to those soft lights on CNN) tossed a softball to Coakley about how her campaign was going. Her tepid response said volumes about a candidate who seems to want to appear substantive without actually saying anything specific. She couldn't even nail the fattest of political pitches. Her flat response about working hard landed with a thud.
Her other responses were the usual Democratic rote about that dastardly pair Bush/Cheney or about how something must be done on health care. The moronic "anything is better than the status quo" argument doesn't hold water because we don't really know what the "anything" is. More importantly, we don't' know how will we pay for the "anything." Coakley simply said it's deficit neutral, leaving out the half-billion in cuts for the Medicare program that may or may not occur.
Before the debate, state Democrats may have hurt Coakley by saying even if Brown is elected they will hold up his swearing in until the health care vote is taken in D.C. This delay could be as long as a month, unlike a recent Democrat special election winner Nikki Tsongas, who was sworn in two days after her special election win. This brazen con job doesn't help the Democratic brand, the health care debate or Coakley. It simply highlights the rapacious one party system in the Bay state.
With regard to foreign policy, what Coakley stands for is largely a mystery. However, she wants to give Al Qaeda civilian trials and she asserts that Al Qaeda has withdrawn from Afghanistan and the U.S. should pull out. This last claim makes the false assumption that if we left Afghanistan, Bin Laden and company would not return. Brown hammered Coakley on her anti-war stance and her support of Al-Qaeda civilian trials, particularly the Christmas Day Bomber. He also showed up her dubious claim of an Al Qaeda-free Afghanistan by pointing out that Bin Laden and the boys would love Afghanistan as a base to topple Pakistan and, thereby, get nuclear missiles.
What was the final tally? This observer would say Brown bested Coakley, but more on energy and image than actual arguments or rebuttals. Before somebody says Brown is all fluff, you have to say that JFK wasn't exactly known for his substantive policies before becoming president. His young handsome countenance was a marked difference from the aged warrior Ike or the rather oily Richard Nixon. Image was important then as now. In their famous TV debate, Kennedy won among TV viewers, while Nixon actually was preferred by radio listeners. In the current Senate debate, Scott Brown looked engaged and energized, while Coakley seemed distant and sported a rather thin smug smile from time to time.
In a sense, Scott Brown has already won. Everyone now knows how amazingly weak the Democratic party is in a race that should have been a cakewalk. Now this could be an early protest vote against a radically unpopular Democratic governor, Obama pal Deval Patrick. His lone achievement, if you can call it that, has been to raise the sales tax. With his approval numbers in the low 30s, Patrick stands little chance of re-election this year. Even a visit by President Obama failed to stir enthusiasm at a Patrick fundraiser in December that was sparsely attended.
Given the anti-Washington, anti-Beacon Hill mood, a flaccid machine candidate like Coakley could lose. However, should Brown lose by a point or two, the damage will have been done anyway. In the original blue state, the message will be unmistakable. Democrats ran the last two cycles against incumbency as change agents. Now, they are the incumbents. Having offered wild spending, more taxes, and 10% unemployment, the Democrats are about to feel the pain of the electorate in a most visceral way. In head-spinning fashion, the former agents of "change" are now in danger of being changed. If the facts could be a rally cry, it might be "Change the change!"